It’s an unseasonably hot day in September in Sunderland, Ont., and I’m at the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary, the only place in Canada that cares exclusively for rescued monkeys. I’ve come hoping to see a famous monkey, and I’m trying to stay optimistic. The enclosure in front of me is filled with objects: primary-coloured playground equipment, a basketball, a suite of fabric strips to swing on — but there’s no monkey, because he’d rather be inside. “That’s the biggest thing for us,” says Lauren Saville, sanctuary volunteer, primatologist and our tour guide for the afternoon. “They aren’t forced to do anything that they don’t want to do, and they can live as free of a life as possible.”
This particular monkey used to have a very different home. Maybe you remember him from the news. On Dec. 9, 2012, Darwin, an infant Japanese macaque, was found wandering the parking lot of a Toronto Ikea, nestled in a shearling coat. He’d escaped from Yasmin Nakhuda’s car while she did some quick shopping. A few months before, Nakhuda had taken Darwin home from an exotic pet dealer. “He was my child, and I wear my title ‘Monkey Mom’ with pride,” she told CBC for its 2015 documentary Wild & Dangerous. “When I say he is my son, most people look at me and say, ‘Well, she’s gone nuts.’ . . . [But] I’m talking from my heart. Because I’ve seen a little human being in that creature.”
An Ikea employee called Toronto Animal Services. They’re mostly set up to handle cats and dogs, and they didn’t have proof that Darwin had been vaccinated. When Nakhuda arrived, they had her sign a surrender form, and they sent him to Story Book. Nakhuda sued the sanctuary, claiming she didn’t understand that she was signing over her ownership. After a widely covered court battle, Darwin’s future was decided: he was no longer a pet and would grow up on the Story Book farm.
Daina Liepa, co-owner of the sanctuary, says the resident monkeys have a better life there. Some, like Darwin, were pets, while others were former lab monkeys or came from privately owned zoos. She’s seen their personalities emerge and develop over time, watched them relax and stop showing signs of stress. Yet the court ruling actually had nothing to do with where Darwin would have a better life. It hinged on the subtleties of property law, which still sees animals as objects. Cats or dogs remain their owner’s property even if they run down the block; not so for most other species. The judge decided that Nakhuda’s ownership of Darwin ended the moment he stepped out of her car — she decided that Darwin was wild.
Can wild animals become pets? Many Canadians certainly think so. The global trade in live animals is enormous, worth at least $5 billion each year in the legal market alone. No one knows the exact number of creatures coming into this country. We participate in an international treaty that regulates the movement of endangered species across borders, but that leaves innumerable species that aren’t tracked. While most provinces have rules of some kind, there are no federal laws regulating the ownership of exotic pets and no widespread registry of owners. On top of that, the black market is thriving.
Rob Laidlaw is the founder and executive director of Zoocheck, an animal advocacy organization in Toronto. He’s been keeping an eye on exotic pets, which he defines as anything that’s not traditionally considered domesticated. “I’ve seen everything,” he says. He thinks there are probably fewer large species like tigers and bears being kept as pets today, but he still regularly encounters smaller mammals like capybaras and wallabies, and there’s been growth in amphibians, birds and reptiles. “I think if you exclude fish,” Laidlaw says, “you’re still looking at tens if not hundreds of thousands of wild creatures that are in the hands of private individuals.”
For many, including Laidlaw and Liepa, this is a problem. They talk about the danger to people and the risk to the animals’ well-being. On the other side, proponents say that responsible owners can give these animals safe, satisfying lives — and that it’s not our place to judge. These conflicts continue to boil over as more places in Canada move to regulate the ownership of exotic pets. For now, though, a patchwork of inconsistent laws keeps things confusing for both critics and owners. In Ontario, the only animals the province bans are orcas and pit bulls, leaving each city to set its own rules — or not. As Laidlaw puts it, “It’s the Wild West.”
The Canadian Pet Expo in Mississauga, Ont., is one of the country’s largest gatherings of animal enthusiasts. There’s a cat show, a dog obstacle course, photo sessions with Instagram-famous pets — and a few dozen amphibian, arachnid and reptile breeders. Since I’m here without a pet, I’m standing in a slow-moving line while human-animal pairs are brought forward to submit their health-and-safety waivers. As dogs parade by, people around me exclaim and point out their favourites to their friends.
When I’m almost at the doors, a family of three appears and joins the fray. They have a pair of bearded dragons, about the size of my forearm from tip to tail, wearing little harnesses as they clutch to the father’s and daughter’s T-shirts. “Look at all these people here with their dogs!” the daughter says. “And here we are.” But people walking around with reptiles becomes less unusual as the day goes on. Many of the containers on breeders’ tables, which at 10 a.m. were filled with snakes coiled up or curiously bobbing their heads, start to empty out by late afternoon. I pass more and more people with lizards in plastic takeout containers or snakes in opaque fabric bags. One man holds his small new python loose on his lap to sit front row for a panel about breeding practices.
One thing that’s obvious about reptile people, both during the pet expo and in my interviews for this story, is that they’re a passionate bunch. Brian Barczyk, a YouTuber who more than filled the 100-odd chairs with cheering fans for his expo talk, tells the audience that he’s happy to have devoted his life to these animals. He says he has a small collection now: about 7,000 creatures. He used to have up to 30,000.
Passion for all kinds of animals isn’t a new phenomenon. The ruling classes in Ancient Greece, Rome and Egypt kept monkeys, birds and other exotic creatures as a display of power and wealth. By the Victorian era, it wasn’t impossible to find an average citizen who owned an elephant or a panther. But in the last few decades, the traffic of wildlife has experienced unprecedented growth, thanks to globalization and the internet.
A quick Google search can bring up classifieds for a baby owl monkey, a kangaroo or a lemur for pickup in Tennessee. You can find a lot more in private Facebook groups, directly through exotic animal dealers or at animal auctions. For some species, all it takes is a trip to a pet expo like the one in Mississauga, or even your local pet store.
And while the animals may be rare, their appeal speaks to a common impulse. “The thing I find remarkable,” said psychologist Harold Herzog in an interview for Peter Laufer’s book Forbidden Creatures, “is that oftentimes people whose lives are intertwined with animals are on one level so normal but on another level have these weird quirks . . . the same sort of thing that drives people to be insane about their car. It’s a manifestation of our humanity in the sense that people get passionate over very, very different things.”
Take Stephanie Churm, a carpet python breeder I meet in a Facebook group for exotic animal enthusiasts in Ontario. “I’ve always been fascinated with the fact that [snakes] don’t have limbs,” she says. “They swim, they climb, they burrow, they manage to eat these huge prey, all without limbs! To me, they’re the ultimate symbol of grace and stealth.” It’s been a lifelong fascination: she grew up in the country surrounded by woods and swamp, and her father would take turtles, snakes and toads home for Churm and her sister to see. “I really liked them,” she says. “I knew from a young age I always wanted snakes.”
Gord Perry of Peterborough, Ont., first got into reptiles for his son. “Growing up, he was unidentified autistic. He needed something to focus on,” Perry says. They went to a local pet store and brought home a pair of bearded dragons. In the 18 years since, he’s started a rescue for abandoned or unwanted reptiles, opened a reptile-focused pet store and kept a wide range of species, including at times large constrictors, monitor lizards and crocodilians. He says that reptiles can make great pets: since they eat less often and don’t need as much social attention as a dog, they’re ideal for busy people. “I’ve found they’re very personable,” he says.
For others, exotics are the only pet option they have. As a kid, Lance Henderson loved animals — but his brother was severely allergic to most, and his mother was terrified of dogs. So he got a frog, a newt and an axolotl, a small and charming salamander that originates in Mexico. As an adult, he now lives with a small menagerie: red-eyed tree frogs, a ball python, a frilled dragon, multiple axolotls, a tegu lizard and more. “I consider them family,” he says.
But not everyone he meets feels the same way. “There’s such a mindset that snakes are these horrible, evil creatures, from biblical to internet lore,” says Henderson. Just because they’re different, he tells me, doesn’t mean they’re not lovable. He sends me a photo of his ball python, fully grown at just three-quarters of a metre (some reach up to 1.5 metres) and entirely docile: its main defence mechanism is to curl up into a ball, not to attack. Sure, some people can be bad owners, he says, but that happens with cats and dogs, too. “Don’t single out the exotic pet owners just because you’ve heard one bad story.”
A particularly awful story, involving a much larger animal, hails from 2013. One night in August, Noah and Connor Barthe, four and six, went to their friend’s house in Campbellton, N.B., for a sleepover. The friend’s father, who owned an exotic pet store on the ground floor below the apartment, had an African rock python, almost four metres long and weighing over 20 kilograms. Overnight, it escaped from its enclosure through a ventilation pipe and made its way through the ceiling into the boys’ room. The next morning, both were found dead. (The snake’s owner was later acquitted of criminal negligence causing their deaths.)
Biologist Marc Bekoff believes incidents like these can happen when we become too comfortable with exotic animals. In 2009, a woman in Connecticut had her face torn off by her friend’s pet chimpanzee. “He still had his wild genes just as do wolves, cougars, and bears who live with humans,” Bekoff wrote in Psychology Today, “and tragedies occur because these are wild animals despite [the fact] that they’re treated as if they’re humans. To say there was no known provocation is to ignore this basic fact.”
In 2017, one year after the Barthe boys’ court ruling, New Brunswick introduced new legislation that will require people to apply for a permit before getting an exotic pet. In fact, it seems like many changes in exotic wildlife laws come in response to disaster. Ohio was a state that had very few restrictions on animal ownership — until a 62-year-old man in Zanesville released more than 50 animals, including tigers, bears and wolves, into the community in 2011 before dying by suicide.
Closer to home, British Columbia amended its Wildlife Act after a woman’s death in 2007. Tanya Dumstrey-Soos was swatted by her fiancé’s tiger, its sharp claws causing devastating blood loss. Now, you’ll need a permit to acquire one of more than 1,000 animals, a process that includes providing public safety and animal welfare plans.
Zoocheck’s Laidlaw says that legislation like British Columbia’s helps but is just one small part of a solution. “It only applies to those animals that are perceived to be a danger. That leaves all of the other exotics.” He says that here’s a threat lurking for owners of more benign-seeming species, too: they can be carriers of zoonotic diseases, ailments that can be transferred back and forth between humans and animals. “It doesn’t mean that anyone who comes into contact with them is going to get sick, but it does mean that [vulnerable or immunocompromised] people may be put at risk.” In recent years, for example, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has linked multiple salmonella outbreaks to small turtles.
The majority of the world’s infectious diseases are zoonotic, and more than 70 percent originate with wildlife, which makes biologist Katherine Smith concerned about the next big epidemic. “Wildlife trade is one of the largest and most complex commerce exchanges in the world,” she and colleagues wrote in a 2017 study. “Modern transportation allows emerging diseases to spread along various globally connected pathways in a matter of days.”
Laidlaw is also worried about what living in a home does to reptiles and other exotics. “I think it’s almost impossible to come up with environments that mimic the natural environments of these animals,” he says. For more uncommon species, he adds, we just don’t know enough about their nutrition, social needs and other factors to be confident we can support their well-being.
As a solution, he’d like to see governments introduce a list of pets that people can have, based on how safe they are to us and whether they’re known to adapt well to captivity. “Then anybody who wants to keep squirrel monkeys, who wants to keep lemurs, who wants to keep wolves — instead of groups like ourselves arguing to get them added to the prohibited list, anyone who wants to keep [these] animals . . . would have to do the work” to get them on the approved list.
There are a few such lists already in Canada, but the vast majority of jurisdictions instead have a list of banned species — a tall order to create when there are millions of species in the world. The result is wild inconsistencies. For example, in Orangeville, Ont., pythons and boas are prohibited. This means you can’t have a ball python, widely considered a beginner snake because of its docility, but you can happily own a penguin. Drive 80 kilometres to Toronto, and your penguin is suddenly banned, but you could have any python that grows up to three metres.
“I don’t believe [any] restrictions are in order,” Perry tells me from Peterborough. “Education is key.” He’s been a strong advocate against prohibited lists, which in his city focus on bigger snakes. “I’ve dealt with both small and large for a long time,” he says, “and I do not believe deep down that larger animals are of more risk.” He tells me about a four-metre snake at his rescue facility. It takes three people to physically lift and handle the reptile, but it’s a gentle giant. Small snakes, by contrast, are usually “very jumpy,” Perry says. “They want to go really, really quick.” Of all the animals in his life, the one that’s given him the most trouble is his chihuahua, which he keeps in another room when people come over.
Instead of bans, he would prefer an owner registry and guidelines for proper, safe care of any kind of animal. In fact, every owner I spoke to for this story is in favour of rules in some form to protect against irresponsible ownership — and even those who believe that there are certain species no one should own would rather have those pets registered and on the record, not banned and driven underground.
“The way I look at it is, you have to license a dog to be your pet and have him in your home,” says Justin Milks, who runs an exotic animal rescue in Dundalk, Ont., that rehomed 100 animals in its first year alone. “If anything happens with that dog, they can hold you responsible as the owner.” He says that many exotics can make good pets, as long as you pick one that’s suited to your specific home environment and do the work to learn how to take care of it — perhaps through a formal training program that you would have to complete before getting a licence for certain species. This would help to avoid impulse purchases by “people that just think it’s cool, and they run out and buy it because they’ve got [money] in their pocket.” The issue is about more than public danger, he says. “It’s the animal’s life, right? We’re all living creatures. We all deserve a decent life.”
Back at the primate sanctuary, I round the corner with my tour group. A tiny monkey the size of a kitten bounds from inside to greet sanctuary volunteer Lauren Saville at the wire fencing. She offers him a mealworm, and he holds it with two hands and readily gobbles it up. “This is Rudy,” says Saville. “He’s a squirrel monkey.” She tells us that he’s her favourite, and it’s not hard to see why: he has an infectious energy, small button eyes and a soft, brightly accented coat.
When Saville passes around a photo of what he looked like when he first arrived, people gasp. His coat looks dull, and there’s no fur at all on his tail. “He was at death’s door, basically,” Saville says. The monkey was dehydrated, his liver failing, and he had been self-mutilating, a primate response to extreme stress. He was found in a shipping container along with other animals destined to become pets.
Co-owner Liepa says she gets multiple phone calls each month from people interested in adding a primate to their home. What she likes to tell people is that “pretty much 100 percent of the time, if you buy a monkey as a pet, it’s a baby.” That means, she says, it’s been taken away from its mother — and if it’s coming from the wild, the rest of its troop was likely killed in the process. “It’s not just a matter of thinking whether they are safe to be pets. It’s going one step back and thinking about how they got to be on the market in the first place.”
There’s surprisingly little research on this process — which is why geographer Rosemary Collard dove into it when starting her PhD. Now an assistant professor at B.C.’s Simon Fraser University, she tells me that the United States is the biggest destination for animals from both legal and illegal markets. Hundreds of millions of living animals arrive in the country each year: about half are fish, but millions are reptiles, hundreds of thousands are birds and tens of thousands are mammals, she says. The vast majority, 80 percent, were taken from the wild, and 90 percent are sold commercially, mainly in the pet trade. “Over the last few decades, it’s really been ramping up,” she says. (The numbers coming into Canada are likely much smaller but still significant.)
She tells me about a study that revealed the movie Finding Nemo, the tale of a clownfish’s mission to rescue his son from life as a pet, ironically drove up interest in owning clownfish — enough to cause steep declines in their wild populations.
For the animals that end up in transport, it can be a claustrophobic and horrific experience. “People don’t think about the fact that for every parrot in the pet store, others died on the way,” Collard says. Mortality rates are species-specific, but in some cases, up to 90 percent of captured animals are dead within the first six months. “There’s a big difference between tame and domesticated,” she says. “It’s just not the way their bodies were designed, the way their minds work. They’re often completely severed from their family social groups.”
The debate about these pets is difficult, she continues, “because it involves humans speaking on behalf of animals. Exotic animal owners will tell you, ‘They’re happy, we love each other, we have a bond.’ And it’s not to deny that. But that bond comes at a high price.”
As for Darwin, he’s now getting some monkey mentorship as he moves into the equivalent of his teen years. Toward the end of the tour, I meet Pierre, a sweet and gentle olive baboon who Liepa says has been teaching the macaque how to be a primate. They groom each other and thrill in running together up and down the runway between their enclosures.
As the rest of the tour dissipates, I hang back, still hoping to see Darwin. A volunteer shows me where she likes to stand, quiet and patient, for the shy macaque to venture out. It takes a few minutes, but I get my first glimpse. He’s sitting in the doorway, peeking out, like he’s checking if all of his visitors are gone. Then a man and his daughter walk by to their car, and he disappears again.
It’s not until I’m back in my own vehicle a few metres away, preparing for the two-hour drive back to Toronto, that he decides to emerge. I’m mesmerized. He’s a lot bigger than when he was spotted in his shearling coat. Watching him move about, I can completely understand how someone could feel close to him. But as I pull onto the highway, I start to think about how different his life could have been if he’d stayed in the wilds of Japan, his natural habitat. Where would he rather be, if he could choose? That’s one thing we have that our pets don’t: the power to control whether they have a good life, whatever that means to us.
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