Monkey business

We ask Toronto Humane Society senior vet, Dr. Karen Ward, about primates as pets and sharks in soup


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Dr. Karen Ward believes Darwin, the ‘IKEA monkey,’ is better off at a sanctuary

Darwin, the monkey who famously roamed around a local IKEA last month, has brought into question the issue of exotic pet ownership in Toronto. The incident has left many people asking whether the confiscated primate should be reunited with his owner or kept in a sanctuary. We spoke to Dr. Karen Ward, senior veterinarian with the Toronto Humane Society and UC Davis–ASPCA fellow, about this and other hot topics in the animal kingdom. 

Why is it a bad idea to own an exotic pet?
There are a number of different reasons — public health is high on the list. Primates especially carry a number of infectious diseases, such as hepatitis, measles, rabies and tuberculosis, as well as emerging diseases, that place humans at risk. Because primates are so close to us genetically, there’s a lot more that can be swapped back and forth.

Bites are also a huge concern with primates.

Another issue is that people can’t generally attend to all the needs of these animals in a home setting. When they’re young, you can enjoy animals such as primates as pets, but once they reach maturity, their behaviour changes quite significantly. They can become quite aggressive.

How do people even get a hold of exotic pets in Toronto?
Well, certainly it’s not something that’s done by legal means. I’m not really tapped into it, but it must be something that’s done behind closed doors.

Is Darwin better off at the sanctuary, or are there psychological concerns about separation from his human mother figure?
I don’t think a person in a house can provide appropriately for a primate’s needs. He can’t express a normal array of behaviours in that environment. They’re not an animal that lives alone. They should ideally be in a group with the same species.  

In general, how much do we need to worry about our pets’ psychology?
Well, if they’re not experiencing good mental health and well being, you’ll have behavioural issues.

Are certain pets known to be more sensitive than others?
Of course, they’re all different in their own way. Cats can be more upset with routine changes, whereas dogs are pretty happy as long as you’re with them. But in general, both cats and dogs are very well-adjusted to living with us.

Are you a cat person or a dog person?
I am both, but I guess my heart is a little bit more with the dogs.

Are there any specific concerns for urban-dwelling pets that Toronto residents should be aware of?
The most common emergency we deal with is trauma. If your animal goes outdoors, they’re exposed to risks like getting hit by a car or balcony falls.

What’s your opinion on the city’s shark fin ban and its repeal by the Ontario court?
I’m personally against using shark fins in soup. I think it’s horrifying, the way it’s done. It’s an atrocious way to treat animals. I think people lose sight of the fact that we all fit within the ecosystem, and all the different species have a role to play. The more we exploit these resources, be them animal resources or plant resources or mineral, the further and further out of whack things get.

What are your thoughts on the zoo’s elephants and the most recent decision to send them to California?
I think zoos play an interesting role, and they’re now having to redefine the role they play in society, focusing more on conservation and education than people being able to go and look at animals from the other side of an enclosure.

I do think it’s incredibly difficult to house species that don’t normally belong in our climate up here, especially very large species. It’s one thing with small animals, when you can build enclosures and reproduce environmental conditions that they normally live under, but it’s very different for these large mammals. And these are animals that are very social and very smart, and it can be difficult to give them enough stimulation and enrichment so that they can live healthy and balanced lives.

So, yes, I think they need to be housed in the most humane and appropriate fashion, where all their needs can be addressed and attended to — and certainly there are concerns as to whether that can be met up here.

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