When Darwin the rhesus monkey became an internet sensation after he was found roaming a Toronto IKEA store on Sunday, no one could have predicted what would follow would be an argument over whether Darwin has the right to choose where it is he wants to live.
Darwin has become a media darling since a video surfaced of the juvenile monkey, in a child’s coat, having escaped from his owner Yasmin Nakhuda’s car at an IKEA store in North York.
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Nakhuda had taken on the task of caring for the monkey five months ago and, though she had thought of giving him up before, had found she was unable to return Darwin because of the attachment they had formed with one another.
That Nakhuda is devoted to Darwin is apparent in a number of videos she has posted on YouTube of Darwin wearing several different outfits, brushing his teeth and more. That’s why the events following Sunday’s great escape have been especially distressing for Nakhuda.
After Sunday’s incident Darwin was taken in by Toronto Animal Services, who fined Nakhuda for breaking animal control laws. They placed Darwin with Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary, but Nakhuda has now indicated she may be willing to go to court to argue her claim and that, in an interesting twist, Darwin should have a right to choose where he lives.
“How do we know what he needs unless he’s given the right to choose?” she asked CP24 early Tuesday. “I think he should be given the right to choose. If he chooses something else than me, that’s fine. For me, it has never been about me, it has always been about him.”
In previous interviews she said the monkey “cannot live without me” and that “he needs his mother like a child needs his mother.”
“Is anyone at the sanctuary willing to have Darwin on their backs for 24 hours a day and 7 days a week?” she questioned in her e-mail. “For this is how he lived with me. There were no signs of him being unhappy or stressed out when he was in my care.”
Nakhuda has said she believes that Darwin cannot live without her and that he has in the past shown signs of extreme distress when separated from her.
The sanctuary has indicated that, while it is sympathetic to Nakhuda’s attachment, Darwin has shown few signs of emotional distress over their separation, though they admit that as yet Nakhuda has been prevented from seeing Darwin. The sanctuary has also said it would fight all attempts at a legal challenge because, they say, Darwin would likely become more and more of a handful as he gets older given that rhesus macaques are wide ranging and robust monkeys.
Matters are further complicated by the fact that the sanctuary is now raising funds using its famous resident in a Darwin-themed fundraiser.
Legal analysts have suggested that animal welfare may well be a concern should Nakhuda bring this case before the court.
While Nakhuada’s argument that Darwin should be given the right to choose may to some sound like an extraordinarily naive approach to this issue, it would be wrong to state that rhesus monkeys are not intelligent enough that we should exclude completely the notion of their emotional well being. Indeed, some studies have shown rhesus monkeys possess what are termed human-like traits such as some sense of self agency. Other research has shown they are able to discriminate faces much in the same way as humans.
Whether that means Nakhuda’s claim to care for Darwin should be given more weight remains to be seen. In the court of public opinion at least, some have called Nakhuda’s attachment to Darwin unhealthy and have said that, by virtue of his escape on Sunday, she has already proved that however well meaning, she cannot provide Darwin a safe environment.
A final word in this story may, however, be the overriding concern that, while juvenile rhesus monkeys are largely docile, adult males — and especially Darwin’s fellow rhesus macaques — can be aggressive and, in addition, carry a type of herpes that is especially dangerous to humans. These facts may provide reason enough to say Darwin’s emotional attachment to his former carer may have to be given less weight against his need to be in an environment in which he poses no risk to others and therefore does not run the risk of lethal measures from animal control.
Image credit: Thinkstock.