The Toronto real estate lawyer who spent the majority of the last six months eating, sleeping and showering with an infant monkey named Darwin has put forth a deceptively shrewd idea. Yasmin Nakhuda’s comments came two days after Darwin escaped from her car in an IKEA parking lot and became the most famous non-human primate on the planet.
Darwin, as everyone from North York to Mongolia now knows, was eventually captured wearing a stylish shearling coat overtop a diaper. Video of his simian adventures went viral, and Toronto Animal Services sent Darwin to Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary, a highly regarded refuge for rescued and abandoned primates in Sunderland, Ontario, to recuperate and begin learning how to live with other monkeys. Meanwhile, Nakhuda was fined $240 for breaking a city by-law forbidding exotic pets.
Video soon emerged of Nakhuda – who admits to thinking of Darwin as her son – dressing the monkey up for Halloween, taking him to the office on a leash and brushing her teeth in tandem with him. Nakhuda is now taking legal action to get Darwin back home, saying she’ll happily move her family to Kawartha Lakes where monkeys are not prohibited in human homes. (Legally speaking, this is a bit like being charged with marijuana possession, paying a fine, and then asking the cops for your weed back while promising to move to Amsterdam.)
But before Nakhuda decided to take Toronto Animal Services and Story Book Farm to court, she offered up this sly suggestion during an interview with CP24:
“If I walk in that room, let him choose,” Nakhuda said, referring to Darwin’s new home at Story Book Farm. “If he chooses something else than me, that’s fine… if he wants to come to me, then I’m the one for him and I’m what’s best for him.”
We can all imagine the scene: Nakhuda enters the sanctuary, followed by an army of news cameras. Darwin lets loose an excited shriek when he sees his former caregiver. Monkey and woman embrace, thereby instigating the most emotional human-animal reunion captured on film since Christian the Lion. Public opinion is swayed by the sheer volume of tears shed, and Darwin is allowed to return home.
In fairness, Nakhuda does seem genuinely concerned for Darwin. At just seven months of age, he received constant physical reassurance from her, and apparently suffered anxiety attacks when she was not around. Unfortunately, her suggestion that Darwin should choose where he wants to live is patently absurd, and strikes to the heart of humanity’s perpetual misunderstanding of our ethical responsibility toward the animal kingdom.
Of course Darwin would leap into Nakhuda’s arms if she were to visit Story Book Farm. He would recognize her, and perhaps recall the comfort she provided him. But to mistake this reaction for proof that Nakhuda’s home is the best place for him would be to ignore overwhelming evidence and scientific opinion to the contrary. Ever since the horrific studies of Harry Harlow in the 1950s and 60s, we have known that infant monkeys are terrible at making good decisions for themselves regarding their own well-being.
Of course they are; they are infant monkeys.
“He needs his mother the way a child needs his mother,” said Nakhuda.
We agree! Darwin does need his mother. But here’s the rub (which I can’t believe this story necessitates pointing out): Nakhuda isn’t Darwin’s mother. Darwin was taken from his biological mother probably within hours of his birth. His real mother is likely long-since dead, or at the very least continuing to have her babies stolen from her in a breeding “facility.” Say what you will about Nakhuda; she is no Japanese macaque. Story Book, on the other hand, is already home to two of them, Lexy and Julien.
What Darwin needs now is much more than simply a warm primate body to snuggle with. He needs to be socialized with other monkeys of his kind as soon as possible, to kick-start the emotional and cognitive development that has surely been stunted by being raised in a human home. He needs to be fed and sheltered by people who have experience feeding and sheltering traumatized monkeys. He needs to be given the dignity to live like a monkey, however imperfect life in a sanctuary might be, because it’s only through providing a dignified life to animals that we demonstrate real compassion, and set good examples for our own children when it comes to relating to the natural world.
Darwin needs to feel safe and to be safe, to not be left alone in cars outside shopping malls.
It may not seem cruel to raise a monkey in a human home, but it is. It may not seem cruel to teach a monkey how to brush his teeth like a human, eat like a human or wear clothes like a human, but it is. Why? Because all of these scenarios are destined to end badly for the monkey. They will inevitably result in a profoundly messed up and confused non-human primate, a cross-fostered (and very large) adult with no sense of its own identity, psychologically traumatized, and with the size, strength, aggressiveness and incisors to act out on its condition with potentially catastrophic consequences.
And what happens when owners realize this? The monkey is either abandoned, sold to a roadside zoo or a research lab, or euthanized.
Much as our instincts may betray us to think otherwise, it is not our role to play mother to the animal kingdom; rather, it is our ethical responsibility to be its loyal custodian. Nakhuda may be allowed to visit Darwin at Story Book Farm, but let’s be clear: Nakhuda should visit Story Book for Darwin’s good, not her own. In time, surrounded by other monkeys and under the expert guidance of the staff at Story Book Farm, Darwin will be weaned from his human surrogate. And he will be better off for it.