Jan Wong: Exotic pets should be illegal—for their sake and ours

Jan Wong: Exotic pets should be illegal—for their sake and ours

Yasmin Nakhuda and her wandering IKEA monkey revealed an underground economy of exotic pets in desperate need of policing

Jan Wong: How the Ikea money revealed an underground economy of exotic pets in desperate need of policing
(Illustration: Sean McCabe)

A few years back, I considered acquiring a goat for lawn care. It would nibble everything in sight, including the dandelions. And if I got the right sex, I could even make artisanal yogurt.

Goats are, of course, verboten in Toronto homes, as are pigs, cows, sheep and chickens. Ditto for an array of marsupials, reptiles, primates, elephants, bears and venomous snakes, which is why, like so many other reasonable city dwellers, I was bemused by the saga of Darwin, the Japanese snow macaque, who last December was famously found wandering around an IKEA parking lot in North York in a double-breasted faux shearling coat. Darwin’s owner, a voluble real estate lawyer named Yasmin Nakhuda, eventually signed the paperwork transferring ownership to Toronto Animal Services, which passed Darwin on to a primate sanctuary in Sunderland, Ontario. Almost immediately, Nakhuda regretted relinquishing custody and filed a suit in the Ontario Superior Court, saying she considered herself Darwin’s “mom.”

I’m baffled why Nakhuda, the mother of two (human) children, wanted a furry animal like Darwin, who required, at least in her opinion, diapering, bottle-feeding and a wardrobe. But apparently owning such a beast is legal. Or not. It’s hard to say. Unfortunately, the federal, provincial and municipal laws are a zoo. Chalk it up to a failure of co-ordination, but federal laws forbid making pets out of migratory birds, such as Canada geese, mallard ducks or robins, and leave rules governing the ownership of other wild animals to the provinces and municipalities. Provincial laws, the domain of the Ministry of Natural Resources, mainly serve to protect indigenous species. Ontario bans domesticating native mammals, such as skunks, squirrels, raccoons and beavers, as well as reptiles and amphibians.

Meanwhile, municipal bylaws, which tend to focus on health and safety, prohibit the keeping of all kinds of exotic pets, including primates like Darwin, large cats like tigers, leopards and cougars, sloths, armadillos and all manner of Crocodyliae. Snakes are allowed, provided they’re less than three metres long and not venomous. The problem is, even when rules exist, they’re seldom enforced—until an animal gets free or a human is attacked.

Darwin’s case laid bare the contradictions within Toronto’s own bylaws. At the four-day trial this spring, Nakhuda’s lawyers argued that Darwin was not wild, but domesticated, noting that he even accompanied his owner to the gym (hers, not his). The court also heard that although a monkey is a prohibited pet in Toronto, city bylaws provide no authority for animal services to either seize Darwin or keep him from his owner. That’s why a clerk at animal services presented Nakhuda with some sort of form, which she hastily signed. Her lawyer said she was misled and didn’t understand she was giving up ownership of the monkey. Lawyers for the primate sanctuary noted that she is a lawyer herself. They contend that she was fed up with Darwin and saw a chance to dump him.

The case law is so thin that lawyers on both sides were forced to rely on legal precedents nearly a century old. In one, a fox wandered off its owner’s property and was shot dead by a neighbour. The court sided with the neighbour. It ruled that the owner lost title when the fox left. Similarly, in Darwin’s case, the court heard that he was Nakhuda’s legal chattel; she bought him for $5,000 from an unnamed Montreal exotic animal breeder. Lawyers for the other side argue that she lost title to Darwin once he left her property, namely her car parked at IKEA, and animal services then lawfully confiscated him.

All this confusion over a pet primate. In an age of government cutbacks, perhaps we shouldn’t waste time drawing up laws in anticipation of every human idiocy. Let’s just use common sense and avoid making Toronto into a safari park.

Wild animals are bad for humans. They can’t be domesticated. Many are carnivores hard-wired to hunt and kill their food. The recent deaths of two little boys in Campbellton, New Brunswick, illustrate my point tragically. Four-year-old Noah Barthe and his six-year-old brother, Connor, were strangled to death during a sleepover at a friend’s house by a 4.3-metre African rock python. The snake had escaped from its enclosure in an apartment above Reptile Ocean—a pet store owned by the friend’s father—before slipping into the ventilation system and falling into the living room where the boys were sleeping. A criminal negligence investigation is underway.

Domesticated animals such as dogs and cats thrive under human care and are supported by an entire industry that has evolved to meet their every need. Pet stores sell nutritious food for them. Veterinarians treat them for diabetes and cancer. Coaches train owners on how to handle nervous, hysterical, depressed or angry dogs and cats. But it’s easy to bungle the care of exotic animals because, well, they’re so rare.

I confess my own incompetence, even with animals not particularly exotic. My husband and I once accepted a baby hairless guinea pig from one of my son’s persistent Grade 5 classmates whose own guineas had had a litter. We had no idea how to care for it. We did the research. We asked pet stores. We gave him a proper diet, cleaned the cage regularly and let him roam around the kitchen for exercise, cleaning up the little black pellets of poop afterward. But despite our loving care, Al died within a year. We buried him in a Tupperware container in our backyard.

Humans are bad for wild animals, too. We take in exotic pets out of a selfish desire for something novel and exciting, without giving much thought to what’s best for the animal or for other city dwellers. Nathalie Karvonen, the executive director of the Toronto Wildlife Centre, sees this behaviour all the time. “There will always be someone in Toronto who wants to own a lion,” she says. The bigger problem, in her view, is the native wildlife—raccoons and squirrels—that people capture as pets, usually to educate or amuse their children. She says the animals often end up with severe malnutrition, bone deformation and early death. “We get calls for help at the end of every summer, but we don’t have the resources to take in half-tame, half-wild animals.” She recommends humane euthanasia, much to the dismay of the wannabe Jane Goodalls on the other end of the line.

Here’s a suggestion: let’s let wild animals be wild, and foreign animals be foreign. I hereby promise not to get a goat.