It's been three whole years since a tiny monkey, resplendent in a shearling coat, was found wandering around an Ikea car park in Canada and changed the internet forever. On the 9th of December 2012, Darwin the macaque became an instant celebrity as the Ikea Monkey: a primate who launched a million memes and reminded us, however momentarily, what it is to feel joy in this otherwise miserable world.
Incredible as it was to see a miniscule monkey exploring a place usually reserved for legions of pissed off humans in search of say, a nice fork or a reasonably-priced side table, everyone knew deep down a monkey wearing a jacket – a pretty nice jacket, as it would happen – just wasn't right.
Turns out, an agitated Darwin, who was only a few months old at the time, had escaped from his owner's car only to be found – and photographed – running amok on the Ontario branch of the store's car park. Yasmin Nadhuka, an exotic animal 'enthusiast', had been rumbled, not only for dressing him up in a shearling coat AND a nappy, but for having an illegal exotic pet.
Nakhuda was fined C$240 for keeping a prohibited animal, and Darwin was taken to the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary in Ontari, despite a lengthy court case which saw Nadhuka try to win him back (she failed, unsurprisingly). Darwin's getting another happy ending, as the sanctuary plans to introduce him to a new 'family' of two rescued macaques in January.
Despite financial difficulties at Story Book Farm earlier this year (which meant the facility's future was uncertain), thanks to the generosity of donors raising hundreds of thousands of dollars, the sanctuary has been able to remain open. Plans are afoot to build a series of new enclosures in 2016 for the 20 primates currently housed there through a series of fundraising events.
Three years on from the Ikea Monkey's dramatic entrance into the world by way of a damp car park, I spoke to volunteer and co-owner of the Story Book Farm sanctuary, Daina Liepa, about what Darwin's been up to since he hung up the shearling.
What was Darwin like when he first arrived?
He was actually quite quiet. We would take turns to look after him so that he wouldn't be too lonely. But now he's now an adolescent and he's actually become very shy. When people come to visit, everyone wants to see Darwin but he will hide and it takes a while for him to feel comfortable to come out. But when he's with us or when he's on his own, he's so rambunctious and jumping and swinging and just being a typical monkey.
How were the other monkeys towards him?
Some people think all the monkeys hang out together in a common area – that doesn't happen. I wish! He's next to a female baboon and next to her is a male baboon, and just across from him are two older rhesus macaques and, at this point, because he can be obnoxious and is being a typical adolescent, they'll start screaming at him to stop making so much noise because he'll throw things about.
Do you still not know where he came from?
We have absolutely no idea. The original owner never divulged that information and I don't even know if she knew. She bought him form an exotic pet trader and it's possible even he didn't know where he came from.
On your website, Ikea is listed as a donor to the sanctuary. How much did they actually donate?
They really haven't donated that much. I think they donated C$10,000 dollars and that was it. We have approached them since then and they have not entertained us. Everybody knows about Darwin the Ikea monkey so they're getting a lot of mentions!
What is Darwin's favourite toy?
He likes to throw things around – actually, his favourite toy at the moment is we tear up bits of sheeting and he'll put the sheet around his head and he literally looks as if he's flying like superman, jumping from one area to another. It's hilarious watching him.
Monkeys shouldn't be wearing nappies, monkeys shouldn't be on a leash and they shouldn't be wearing coats
Does he have a favourite food?
[Monkeys] all love peanut butter. If we have a plastic water bottle I'll put in grapes or peanuts which are both favourites, but then if you add peanut butter around the side then they lick it off or lick their fingers. And he loves peanut butter sandwiches.
Which word would best describe Darwin now?
Mischievous. When we clean his indoor enclosure we have to lock him out before anybody goes in but he doesn't like to be locked out, he likes to have free reign to go wherever he wants whenever he wants so he's always looking in the window to see what's happening and rattling the door to try and get in. He wants his own way. He's like a spoilt teenager.
Is it hard looking back at the pictures of Darwin at Ikea?
It is, because it just shows how ludicrous his life was as a baby monkey. Monkeys shouldn't be wearing nappies, monkeys shouldn't be on a leash and they shouldn't be wearing coats. People ask us if we have the coat and I actually don't have a clue where it is.
That's probably a good thing.
It would probably make a good museum piece. When he came to us, he was eight inches tall when he was sitting down, now he's three to four times the size. The shearling coat would no way fit him now. It's sad. It reminds you of what happens with baby monkeys – they should be free to jump and run and cuddle with their mothers. But now he's definitely a monkey again.
What's the situation with Darwin's new 'family'?
We're hoping that we can introduce him to two macaques, Cody and Puglsey, who are going to be coming to us in January and we're building a new enclosure for them. These are lab monkeys from a Canadian university, they've finished their research. So we're hoping we can introduce them to him and that they'll get on well, so their enclosures will be accessible to each other but then with the shift doors, we can separate them if necessary so I think that would be good for him.
Will they get on?
We just have to see what happens. It would've been better to do that when he was younger. We actually had an opportunity to get two other macaques that were at a roadside zoo but Darwin's original owner bought them instead. [Nadhuka now lives in a different part of Canada not subject to the Ontario by-laws on keeping exotic animals as pets.] So the family that we could've generated for Darwin, she actually bought them from under us.
Is it a strange situation, to take lab monkeys, when animal testing is not something you would ever endorse?
Yeah, we've had that conversation, because it's much easier and cheaper for the university to euthanise the monkey. For C$50, they have the syringe and the medication and they don't have to think about the monkey any more, whereas if they care about the livelihood of the monkeys, they have to go out of their way to find who will take them, so we tend not to be judgemental. It's not pleasant, but as long as it's still legal for it to happen and there are monkeys in labs, then we'd rather help them.
Visit storybookmonkeys.org to learn more about Darwin and his primate pals or to make a donation to the sanctuary.
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