Ikea monkey saga raises questions over exotic pet laws

The saga of Darwin, the young monkey found wandering outside a Toronto Ikea store, is leading to calls by animal protection groups for stronger laws on exotic pets.

Befuddled shoppers spotted the tiny macaque, clad in a shearling coat and diaper, in the parking lot outside the North York Ikea on Sunday, after he escaped his owner’s vehicle.

Darwin was eventually corralled by workers at the store, before being seized by animal control officials and transferred to a primate sanctuary northeast of Toronto. His owners were fined $240 for breaking the city's prohibited-animal bylaw.

Images of the monkey set social media alight and garnered headlines worldwide. But animal protection groups say the bizarre incident has also shed light on the hodgepodge of Canadian rules governing which exotic animals can be kept as pets and where.

“It’s just a complete mess right across the country,” said Rob Laidlaw, executive director at Zoocheck Canada.

While some provinces have passed laws prohibiting certain exotic creatures — usually those deemed to pose a potential risk to public health — others, including Ontario, “download those responsibilities onto the municipalities,” he said.

So when it comes to exotic animals, “for all intents and purposes it’s unregulated in Ontario,” since owners can choose to live outside the limits of any municipality that has a list of prohibited animals on its books, Laidlaw said.

The City of Toronto’s list of prohibited pets includes primates, elephants, hybrid wolf-dogs and sloths, among others. But Darwin’s former owners say they purchased him in Montreal, and a quick Google search reveals a number of ads featuring baby capuchin monkeys that are currently for sale in the city.

Alanna Devine from Montreal's SPCA said it’s up to each borough in that city to regulate which animals it prohibits.

She said it doesn't surprise her to see a monkey kept as a pet, but she warned that monkeys can behave dangerously and can transmit disease to humans.

There are also provincial regulations in Quebec covering the breeding and keeping of exotic animals, which Devine said is something her organization will be “following up on.”

British Columbia is one of the few provinces to have enacted legislation covering exotic animals, according to Peter Fricker, a spokesman for the Vancouver SPCA.

The B.C. law, which came into force in 2010, places strict limits on owners of exotic animals and bars creatures such as big cats, poisonous snakes, large reptiles and primates from being imported to B.C.

“The ideal situation would be federal legislation, but failing that it would be good if other provinces adopted a similar approach” to the B.C. law, Fricker said.

Some countries have had national exotic pet ownership laws for decades. Britain, for instance, passed the Dangerous Wild Animals Act in 1976.

Fricker is also concerned that news coverage of the Ikea monkey may encourage people to seek out primates similar to Darwin as pets.

It’s happened before, he said. After the animated Disney movie Finding Nemo came out in 2003, there was a spike in demand for clownfish as pets, which led to plummeting populations of the species in some parts of the ocean.

Louis McCann, executive director of pet industry trade group PIJAC Canada, said he gets several calls a month at his office in Ottawa from people who want to adopt an exotic animal of one type or another.

“There’s always an interest for something that’s more exotic,” McCann said.

He said he advises the callers to find out whether the animal they want can be imported into Canada legally, and whether it’s prohibited in the city or province where the caller lives.

He also asks them to consider whether the creature would make a good pet in the first place.