KAWARTHA LAKES, Ont. – As the sun sets over the sprawling property in rural Ontario, the farmhouse party gets into full swing.
The host walks around chatting up the guests, two small monkeys perched on her shoulder. One is dressed in a collared jumpsuit, the other in a polka-dot dress.
Up the hill, a pair of burlesque dancers perform as guests snap photographs of other animals – two miniature donkeys, a wallaroo named Wall-E, a few alpacas groomed like best-in-show poodles, two tiny marmosets, two ferrets and a skittish black-and-white fox.
This is Yasmin Nakhuda’s Xanadu where she presides over her menagerie at her home in Kawartha Lakes, where she moved in 2014 after losing her “son” Darwin – a Japanese macaque that escaped from her car and wandered into an Ikea store.
Images of the tiny monkey wearing a beige shearling coat triggered a social media frenzy and a legal battle that Nakhuda eventually lost to an animal sanctuary that Darwin now calls home.
Two other monkeys – Caesar and Diva – have taken Darwin’s place. Caesar, also a Japanese macaque, stays close to Nakhuda, shying away from the strangers.
“He fills my life, I love him a lot, but he’s not Darwin and will never be Darwin,” the 47-year-old real estate lawyer says through tears as she kisses the monkey on the lips before giving him a raisin.
“They are like us, they want to feel that touch, that love. People should have the right to own these amazing animals and create these amazing bonds.”
Owning exotics – wild animals taken from their natural habitat or bred in captivity and not native to the country – is a growing trend in Canada, according to animal welfare activists, who blame a patchwork of outdated and inconsistent laws and bylaws.
Rob Laidlaw of Zoocheck, a wildlife protection charity based in Toronto, has been fighting for animals’ rights for decades. Reliable data on the number of exotic animals in Canada is difficult to come by, he says.
“There’s a vacuum when it comes to statistics and when you’re looking at actual numbers there is no central registry,” Laidlaw says.
Based on his research, Laidlaw believes there are hundreds of thousands of exotic animals in the country, the vast majority being reptiles.
“The number of animals like tigers and baboons are going down, anecdotal evidence tells us, but the number of reptiles and amphibians is on the rise in a big way.”
It doesn’t help that the laws vary wildly across Canada, he says.
“Ontario is probably the worst jurisdiction in the country for exotic animal laws and has been for quite a long time,” Laidlaw says.
Only two types of animals are banned by the provincial government: pit bulls and killer whales. It is up to municipalities to create their own bylaws, and many of them, such as Toronto and Ottawa, maintain a list of prohibited animals, or as Laidlaw calls it a “negative list.”
The problem with “negative lists,” he says, is that they must be constantly updated.
Instead, he says, Canada should adopt a “positive list” approach used in several European countries that allows ownership of only listed animals.
READ MORE: Exotic pets in Saskatchewan
Laidlaw says two provinces, British Columbia and New Brunswick, have taken some action on exotic animal laws.
Both Saskatchewan and Quebec require permits for certain exotic animals, but none are banned outright. Many provinces in the country take a similar approach to Ontario’s and leave it to municipalities to decide.
The B.C. government brought in the Controlled Alien Species Regulation under the Wildlife Act after a captive tiger at an exotic animal farm reached through its cage and sliced a woman’s leg in 2007. She bled to death as three children, including one of her own, watched.
In 2009, the province passed a law that listed 1,300 prohibited species. People who owned animals on the list, which ranged from hippopotamuses to monkeys to alligators – and, of course, tigers – were able to apply for a permit to keep the animals, but couldn’t breed them or display them to the public.
“There are challenges, but it’s still better than most jurisdictions,” says Sara Dubois, chief scientific officer with the B.C. Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.
The New Brunswick legislature, meanwhile, is expected to debate proposed changes to its exotic animal laws in November. The provincial government commissioned a wide-ranging review of its laws and regulations in the wake of a tragedy where an African rock python killed two young brothers in Campbellton, N.B.
Autopsies showed the boys, Noah Barthe, 4, and his six-year-old brother Connor, died by asphyxiation when the 45-kilogram snake escaped its enclosure inside an apartment, made its way through a pipe that collapsed under its weight, and fell into the room where the boys were sleeping.
The snake’s owner, Jean Claude Savoie, will go to trial in October to face a charge of criminal negligence causing death.
Laidlaw says the changes in B.C. and New Brunswick were a step in the right direction. However, laws must be enforced, Laidlaw says, pointing out that the African rock python involved in the young brothers’ death has been banned in New Brunswick since 1992.
“It’s great to have things on paper, but if nobody is out there doing the job, not much is going to change.”
The Ontario government said it’s reviewing the exotic animal laws and expects to propose new regulations in the next two years.
“We have a patchwork of legislation at the municipal level and it’s important that we have consistency across the province and protection for all Ontarians,” said David Orazietti, minister of community safety and correctional services, which is also responsible for animal welfare.
“Ontario needs to take action on regulation of exotic animals so that we’re not acting in response to a potential tragedy.”
Meanwhile, Darwin, the Ikea monkey, darts around in his enclosure at Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary in Sunderland, Ont., grabbing grapes from a volunteer.
The majority of the 19 primates at Story Book used to be part of the exotic pet trade, according to spokeswoman Daina Liepa. One, a squirrel monkey named Rudy, was found in a dark storage locker in eastern Toronto along with a Harris hawk and several Bengal cats.
“He had overgroomed himself from stress,” says Rachelle Hansen, a longtime volunteer at the sanctuary.
She gets emotional when she tells the story of Lexy, a 10-year-old Japanese macaque with a penchant for baby dolls.
“She always carries that baby with her,” she says. “We heard Lexy lost a baby, the baby was taken away, likely to be sold as a pet….she’s still longing for her baby and carrying her baby around.”
Recently, Hansen says, a man came by to see how Lexy was doing. He told her he bought Lexy nine years ago for $1,000, but gave her up after nine days because he couldn’t handle a monkey as a pet. After bouncing around for a bit at a few roadside zoos, the monkey ended up at Story Book, she says.
Hansen breaks down at one point, explaining why she’s volunteered for more than 10 years at Story Book.
“Because I see they really need our help,” she says through tears.
Back in Kawartha Lakes, where the only animal bylaws relate to dog licensing, Nakhuda also tears up when she talks about Darwin locked up in a cage like a “prisoner.”
“I don’t agree with that. He’s not happy where he is, he’s not where he should be,” she says as she pulls out another raisin and asks Caesar for a kiss.