The Call of the Wild

This article originally appeared in the Globe and Mail on August 3, 2013 in a special Focus section on pets.

When I tell you that my pet Max is stubborn and hilarious, you’ll probably assume I’m talking about a cat or a dog, possibly even a bunny rabbit. But what if Max weren’t a cat or a dog? What if, instead of being an elderly Wheaten terrier who likes to play ball-in-cup, Max were a crocodile, a wallaby, or a tarantula? Would you think I was crazy?

Siberian tiger

These days, fashionable pet people carry Chihuahuas in their purses and feed them organic canine cookies, and the rest of us might at worst roll our eyes. But the man who feeds fresh meat to a Siberian tiger in his backyard is considered a redneck maniac.

No figures exist for the number of exotic pets currently in Canada, but rest assured, they’re out there by the nest-full, and they could be living next door.

Toronto residents will never forget the six-foot cobra who escaped its enclosure in a west-end home in 2007. We all remember that poor woman who was killed by one of her fiancé’s tigers near 100 Mile House, BC. And for pure tragic irony, no incident can rival the fatal mauling of Norman Buwalda in 2010 by one of his Siberian tigers. Mr. Buwalda happened to be the chairman of the Canadian Exotic Animal Owner’s Association, and had fought for years to keep his cats despite his neighbours’ repeated complaints.

More recently, Darwin the IKEA monkey has become the subject of a sensational custody battle, while the German government has levied a $1,500 fine on Justin Bieber for trying to smuggle his pet capuchin monkey into the country (where he then abandoned it). Celebrities have long shown a predilection for exotic pets, from Michael Jackson’s chimp named Bubbles to Nicholas Cage’s octopus to Leonardo DiCaprio’s gigantic tortoise.



Many of us say we keep pets as a means of connection (however inauthentic) with the larger natural world. But when that pet is either undomesticated or truly wild, it seems we’ve somehow crossed a line. Is this fair? As the wildebeest said to the crocodile when asked if she likes to swim: yes and no.

Now, I’m not talking about run-of-the-mill exotics here, the lizards, cockatoos and tropical fish you can find in your local pet store. I’m talking about the more “charismatic” species, to steal an industry term – the kinkajous, wolverines and lions that are only available through alternate channels, like private breeders and animal auctions.

Why does anyone brave the stigma? I ask Scott Shoemaker, Director of Responsible Exotic Animal Ownership (REXANO), a U.S. education and lobby group. Mr. Shoemaker himself keeps a cougar, a bobcat, an ocelot, several tigers and an African lion named Bam Bam on his 10-acre property in Pahrump, Nev.

“First, it’s just a love for the animal itself, a fascination with it,” he says. “Second, it’s probably the challenge. Third, it’s the amount of dedication it takes. It’s a lot harder to take care of lions and tigers than, say, a housecat.”

Love. Challenge. Dedication. Sounds like a prescription for a fulfilled life. But what about ego?

Like today’s celebrities, powerful humans have been keeping animals from elsewhere for thousands of years. The trade was a going concern in ancient Egypt, when pharaohs filled private gardens with hyenas and leopards, and the medieval and early-modern periods saw some of the most comprehensive examples in the form of royal menageries:

tower menagerie

Charlemagne built three in the eighth century, William the Conqueror had one in the 11th and Louis XIV had two in the 17th. In the Tower of London, elephants, lions, polar bears and other species gallivanted around the palace grounds for six centuries.

A menagerie announced an aristocrat’s power, wealth and social status to all who visited. The animals were living testaments to their owners’ vast resources and connections, usually delivered by returning explorers or given as diplomatic gifts by far-flung heads of state.

So where does ego come into play with keeping exotics today? Rob Laidlaw, the founder of the animal-protection charity ZooCheck Canada, says he does see a trend: “With the tigers or the lions or the spitting cobras, you have people who are fulfilling a need. It may be a need to increase their self-worth in the eyes of their friends. With the more dangerous species, a lot of them tend to be young men.” In summary: “Give a nobody a tiger on a leash, and he quickly becomes a somebody.”

Mr. Shoemaker mostly disagrees. “I’m sure there are some people out there like that,” he’ll allow. “But they don’t stay in it because of ego, prestige, or any of that. It’s so much work! There’s not much ego in going around and picking up cat shit.”


Clearly not everyone who owns an exotic animal does it to look tough. Say what you will about Darwin’s self-declared “mother,” there is no denying the bond they shared before he escaped in that parking lot. Then there’s the footage from a recent Pet Amnesty Day in St. Petersburg, Florida. One woman simply dissolves on camera as she imagines what it will be like to return to an empty house after handing over her beloved pets. Had she just given up monkeys, wolves or a particularly loving pair of white-faced sakis? Nope: Two green iguanas.


“It’s kind of hard to explain unless you see it and experience it,” Mr. Shoemaker says of the bond he shares with his big cats. “How do you explain to someone what it’s like to go skydiving?”

For the first two years of their lives, each of the cats live in his house with him and his partner, Zuzana. Once the socializing is complete (i.e., the feline gets too big for the couch), the animal is moved outside into an enclosure ringed with eight-foot fencing and topped with electric wire.

The truth is, it’s possible to have (or believe we have) a deep connection with an animal whether or not they are a domesticated species. This makes the issue much more complicated than we like to admit, and requires us to consider exactly what we mean by the word “pet.”


Captive animals are still considered personal property in most jurisdictions worldwide, and as such they are lightning rods for arguments over property rights and freedoms.

According to its position statement, REXANO aims to “oppose legislation that restricts the private ownership or use of animals.” Mr. Shoemaker says he is not against sensible regulation. His property is inspected twice a year, and he submitted voluntarily even before it was required by state law. But I wonder whether REXANO would go along with modernizations or amendments to current laws, since it is declaredly “committed to protect the rights of animal owners.”

In Canada, every province except Ontario either prohibits exotic pets or regulates them in some fashion. In 2009, British Columbia took the lead by amending its Wildlife Act to include more than 1,000 “controlled alien species” that require a permit to possess. The bar for acquiring one is so high that it serves as a de facto ban.

In Ontario, though, the situation is much different. Regulation is downloaded to municipalities, many of which haven’t bothered; for those that have, few standards exist on how the bylaws should read. The result is a collection of Swiss-cheese regulations across the province, some with holes large enough to drive an Orinoco crocodile through.


Any Ontarian with Internet access and a payday loan can buy a black Mamba, as long as you there’s no bylaw in place. Ironically, thanks to the global trade, which one estimate suggests is worth between $5– and $15-billion a year (second in value only to the illegal drug trade), exotic pets aren’t what they used to be.

ZooCheck’s Mr. Laidlaw thinks Ontario needs to hurry and catch up: “We license taxi cabs and hot dog stands and coffee shops, but any Tom, Dick or Hairy can go out and buy a spitting cobra that could envenomate the neighbour’s kid.”

Ontario’s Community Safety Minister Madeleine Meilleur recently announced coming changes, including mandatory licensing for zoos and aquariums and increased resources for animal welfare, but its rules on private ownership have far to go.

The trend towards regulating exotic pets is an important one both ethically and ecologically. When breeders and owners submit to little or no oversight, animal welfare often comes second (or fourth) to the financial bottom line. Meanwhile, especially in the case of reptiles, the capture of wild animals to feed the global trade is decimating intact tropical ecosystems.

It’s easiest to raise the public’s ire on the issue, however, in terms of public safety – I don’t want my niece to have her face ripped off by a frightened, confused, rampaging non-human-primate.

The REXANO website provides a variety of statistics that appear to show that attacks by exotic animals in the U.S. are less frequent than you might think. So I ask Mr. Shoemaker which animal is more dangerous to my well-being, a tiger or a housecat.


“I think a housecat is more dangerous,” he says. “A tiger will telegraph what it’s going to do. But have you ever had a housecat? One minute it’s all nice and friendly and then it’ll just turn around and bite you?”

Surprised, I tell him I’ve never been bitten by a housecat, and ask if he’d like to qualify his answer. No way. That tabby on the windowsill is apparently a killer.

Mr. Shoemaker blames the media for the public’s fear of exotics: “If you get bit by a dog, you’re lucky if you get a report by animal control. But if you get bit by a tiger it’s going to make the national news.” The only neighbours’ complaints he gets, he says, are calls when Bam Bam hasn’t roared in a while, to check if the lion is okay.


Opinions do seem to be shifting on exotic-pet ownership in Canada. Mr. Laidlaw consults with municipalities on their bylaws, and the trickiest sections aren’t what you might think.

“It used to be about banning big cats and monkeys,” he says. “But now the discussion is, ‘Okay, we’re banning all those species, but what about green iguanas?’ … In Oshawa, the most controversial part of their revamped bylaw was hedgehogs!”

There is, of course, another reason people are inspired to keep exotics: to make money off them. There are more than 50 roadside zoos in Ontario alone. We’ve all seen the signs on the highway for Zeke’s Backyard Menagerie or Julia’s Jumpin’ Jaguars. And then there’s always Marineland.

In fact, Mr. Laidlaw thinks the problem of economic incentive is probably the most important, as it strikes to the heart of our philosophies about how we coexist with other animals: “It’s simply wrong to commercialize wildlife,” he says. “It’s dangerous to create a system where an animal’s worth is simply their value to us as an amusement.”

Humankind has been locking up exotic animals for thousands of years. We’ve done it to demonstrate power, to stroke the ego, for love, for the challenge, and in many cases to pay the bills. Along the way, countless animals have been exploited so meticulously that they have been transmogrified into symbols of both our strengths and our most primal needs: Darwin, for instance, is no longer just a baby Japanese macaque; via the litigiousness of his human “mother,” he has become emblematic of the defiant maternal instinct.

For Mr. Shoemaker, though, the matter simply comes down to the bond a person can share with any animal, domestic or wild: “Our neighbours – an elderly couple from New York,” he says. “They don’t have pictures of their children up in their living room. They have pictures of our cats.”

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Two famed sign-language chimps headed to Fauna!

I’ve been speaking about The Chimps to book clubs, library groups, literary types and animal lovers for more than two years now, and every time I do someone asks: “Can Gloria accept any more chimpanzees into her sanctuary?” My answer has always been the same: “No. Quebec Agriculture laws forbid it.”

Until now.



Plans are now underway to move two of the most famous chimps in America to the Fauna Foundation. Tatu (37) and Loulis (35) are the last surviving members of a very special group of chimps who in the 1970s became the first non-human primates to learn American Sign Language.

This group included Moja, Dar and the charismatic Washoe, arguably the most famous chimp in scientific history. Since the early 1980s, the five had lived at the Chimpanzee and Human Communication Institute (CHCI) at Central Washington University. Sadly, over the last ten years Moja, Dar and Washoe have passed away from natural causes, leaving Tatu and Loulis rather lonely.

As we all know by now, chimps need companionship to survive. And what better place for Tatu and Loulis to make new friends than at Fauna? The chimps will be leaving CHCI for good to live out the rest of their retirement with Binky, Regis, Jethro, Chance and everyone else on the farm in Quebec.



Gloria and her team are currently navigating a labyrinth of paperwork and permitting issues (there is, of course, that pesky Quebec Agriculture law to contend with). No specific timeline for the chimps’ arrival has been made public. But preparations, if only psychological at this point, are well underway. I will make sure to update this blog with news of the new arrivals as it becomes available.


CHCI was founded by pioneering primatologists Roger and Deborah Fouts, who conducted the first studies into sign language and chimpanzees. To read more about the Fouts’ scientific odyssey with the chimps, look no further than Roger’s remarkable book, Next of Kin: My Conversations with Chimpanzees.

As you might imagine, accepting new chimpanzees is a challenging and expensive undertaking. If you’ve been thinking of donating to Fauna but haven’t yet, now would be the perfect time. Here’s how.


Posted in Chimpanzee, General News | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Does Darwin the IKEA monkey need a human mother?

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 exploring his new home at Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary.

Darwin exploring his new home at Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary. (Darren Calabrese/National Post)

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.

Darwin's destiny: An adult Japanese macaque

Darwin’s destiny: An adult Japanese macaque. (Wikipedia)

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.

Raised as a human baby, Darwin has to figure out how to be a monkey. (Darren Calabrese/National Post)


Posted in General News, monkey | 37 Comments

The Chimps wins the Charles Taylor Prize!

It is my distinct honour to announce that The Chimps of Fauna Sanctuary has won the 2012 Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. The Taylor Prize is our country’s most prestigious non-fiction book prize, and although the ceremony was three days ago, I am still in shock about the whole thing. I will never forget the moment my name was announced, in a packed Sovereign Ballroom at the King Edward Hotel in Toronto, and the wave of applause that followed. But what happened next? It’s all a bit foggy.

I remember kissing my wife, hugging my parents and giving my editor a high-five. I also remember wading through the standing ovation towards His Excellency the Right Honourable David Johnston, Governor General of Canada, so I could shake his hand. Then I was on stage for a while, thanking the jury and hugging Noreen Taylor, who founded the prize eleven years ago in honour of her husband. I gave a speech, during which I broke down a bit, forgot to thank my agents and my publisher, and listed off the names of the chimps of Fauna, one by one. Thankfully, I remembered to thank my wife.

And then I became the subject of a rather intense little media scrum. The funniest thing about the scrum, or the only thing I remember about the scrum, is how damn polite it was. There were about fifteen audio recorders in my face, and at least four video cameras, but for the first few seconds, no one asked me any questions. It was hilarious! We were all just standing there silently, each reporter waiting for the other to take their turn.

Anyway, an hour later, it was just me, my family, my agents, my publicists and Noreen, standing around and chatting in the Ballroom, none of us keen to leave. We ended up in the bar (of course) but it seemed to take forever to get there. My fellow shortlisted authors were long gone; I never got to say a proper goodbye. And now it’s three days later, The Chimps has had more publicity than I ever thought possible, and it feels as though the general anesthetic is finally beginning to wear off after one hell of an awesome trip to la-la-land.

What a ride. I am so thankful. I guess it’s about time to start thinking about my next book, huh?

This is Noreen and me, immediately after the win. It’s weird… I don’t look unconscious.

Posted in Awards, Chimps of Fauna, General News | 12 Comments

The Chimps a finalist for the Charles Taylor Prize

The ride continues…. Last week, The Chimps was selected as one of five finalists for one of our country’s most prestigious book awards, the Charles Taylor Prize for Literary Non-Fiction. My wife Samantha was at the announcement, and she tells me that the jurors actually quoted from my blog during the press conference. Journalist and author Stevie Cameron read this post, about the thrill of making a prize list, aloud to the crowd.

Not sure what else to write here, as I’m beginning to feel a little too blessed by the literary gods this season. So I’ll just leave you with the jury’s citation about my book, which are some of the kindest words yet written about The Chimps:

BRILLIANTLY BLENDING SCIENCE AND STORYTELLING, primatologist and author Andrew Westoll takes us deep into the world of the haunted and haunting rescued research chimps of Fauna Sanctuary. Pulled from decades of horrific lab conditions, rescued chimps live out the balance of their long lives in sanctuaries such as Fauna, cared for and loved by an extraordinary group of people. Westoll deftly draws the reader into the wild day-to-day ride of life with the Fauna chimps and soon their Otherness falls away. Through his lens, the chimps are revealed as the individuals they are, with all their foibles, damage, and possibility – and the reader’s world view shifts on its axis. Heartrending and heart-warming, this is a stunning and important work of art and documentary and science.

By the way, I found out I was a finalist from Samantha, who texted me – fingers shaking – moments after hearing my name announced. The text read: “You’re on the list!!!!!!!!!!!!” I might never delete that one from my phone.

Posted in Awards, Chimps of Fauna | 8 Comments