Of primates and men
The fate of the Ikea monkey (remember him?) will be decided in an Oshawa courtroom this week. For the benefit of those who might have just woken up from a very long sleep or who have recently arrived from another planet, here is the story so far:
On Dec. 9, a six-month-old macaque monkey, later identified by his owner, Yasmin Nakhuda, as Darwin, was found wandering about outside a North York Ikea store. His attire, a diaper and a shearling coat, was minimalist yet chic.
If Darwin was making a dash for freedom, his choice of destination was inappropriate. Ikea is a temple to the spirit of domesticity, not known for hospitality to displays of animal mayhem. But in fairness to Darwin, who knows what subversive schemes were hatching in his simian brain? Perhaps he was plotting to proceed through the galleries in a counter-clockwise direction, or maybe to grab an extra Swedish meatball at the lunch counter.
After his apprehension, Darwin was packed off to the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary in Sunderland, Ont., pending a court decision about his fate. The keepers of the sanctuary want it to be his permanent home. Nakhuda, a real estate lawyer, is demanding his return (“he’s my son,” she says) while denying accusations from Darwin’s current custodians that her family had abused the tiny primate.
However convincing her protestations, they raise the larger question of whether treating a wild animal as if he were a human toddler might not be abusive in itself.
Nakhuda apparently decided to adopt Darwin after watching a YouTube video of two young macaque monkeys working as waiters in a restaurant in Japan. Their favourite task was handing out warm towels to patrons.
One customer is shown praising the monkey’s cheerful compliance. So unlike his own children, he says.
He had better enjoy the simian courtesies while he may.
Because the same monkey who one day is cheerfully passing out towels might the next be bouncing a beaker of sake off the patron’s head.
And this surely is the point. Adorable little primates, eager to please, turn into hormonally charged young adults, with serious anger issues. There is accumulating evidence that every quasi-domesticated monkey will sooner or later have its own “I’m as mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more” moment.
The message here is that we really need to sort out our connection to the non-human animal kingdom. An attempt to do this is made in the book Zoopolis (published in 2011) co-authored by Will Kymlicka, one of Canada’s leading political theorists, and Sue Donaldson, a vegan cook.
They propose that domesticated animals (cats and dogs especially) be accorded the status of citizens. Meanwhile, wild animals should enjoy the benefits of “sovereignty,” while creatures, such as raccoons, that share space with humans, should be accorded the dignity of “denizens.”
The thesis has the merit of boldness, but it fails on several counts.
Donaldson and Kymlicka represent citizenship for domestic animals as the highest form of animal rights, but on closer inspection it seems more like animal repression. To be good citizens, pets must conduct themselves with appropriate civic decorum, repress their vestigial hunting instincts, and even accept a vegan diet.
More to the point here, the book doesn’t provide anything useful for understanding the Darwin debacle. All we are offered about primates is an account of how Capuchin apes can learn to recognize money and spend it responsibly. How more domesticated can you get than that?
But monkeys make a mockery of Zoopolis’s static categories (“domestic” and “wild”) by darting mercurially between them. They elicit a degree of human empathy beyond that even of cats and dogs, while periodically (often violently) reminding us that they are wild animals at heart. They wouldn’t make good citizens in the authors’ sentimental fantasy-land.
Political philosophy, in general, has proved inadequate in defining proper relations between human and non-human animals. We need a credo that establishes appropriate distinctions, not one intent on dissolving them. We need to recover, not violate, the dignity of difference between ourselves and primates such as Darwin.
Perhaps we should re-explore what Christian humanism has to offer. Here are some compelling words from St Thomas More, one of its most eloquent practitioners, as rendered by the playwright Robert Bolt: “God made the angels to show him splendour — as he made animals for innocence and plants for their simplicity. But Man He made to serve him wittily, in the tangle of his mind.” (More himself kept a monkey, but emphatically not as a human surrogate.)
I hope that the judge in Darwin’s case has sufficient wit to untangle the complexities, and reject heartfelt but wrong-headed pleas that a pet monkey is legally equivalent to an adopted child.