If your New Year's resolution was to catch up with old friends, we're here to make that a little easier: everyone's favourite viral monkey, Darwin, is doing great.
In fact, the Japanese macaque who was catapulted to worldwide fame after he was spotted wearing a shearling coat at a Toronto Ikea in late 2012 even has a new "surrogate dad" — an 18-year-old olive baboon named Pierre.
These days, as six- or seven-year-old Darwin enters his macaque "teenage" years, "Pierre is very much a father figure," Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary co-owner Daina Liepa told HuffPost Canada in a phone interview.
Pierre is "a very sweet monkey" with "a lovely gentle personality," but he's not afraid to discipline Darwin if he steps out of line. Darwin will sometimes try to steal Pierre's food, for instance, or will be overly rambunctious — but when that happens, "Pierre will settle him down," Liepa added.
In case you're not caught up on the "Ikea monkey" saga, here's a quick refresher: Darwin was taken away from his owner, Yasmin Nakhuda, after he went viral at Ikea. (Monkeys are on Toronto's prohibited animal list.) For the last six years he's been living at the primate sanctuary.
Story Book Farm in Sunderland, Ont., has lemurs, baboons, spider monkeys and capuchins, as well two other Japanese macaques like Darwin. Because monkeys tend to be very tribal, they hoped to place Darwin with other macaques — but Julian and Lexy were much more aggressive than the timid Darwin, and staff were worried they might attack him.
So he got an enclosure of his own, next to two good-natured olive baboons: Sweet Pea, a female, and Pierre.
Initially, they were worried Darwin wouldn't socialize. Primates "tend to not be friendly with other species," Liepa said.
Ideally, Darwin would have been transported to an American sanctuary that specializes in Japanese macaques — but because they didn't have his exact birth date or medical history, they weren't able to get him across the border. (There's only one other primate sanctuary in Canada, the Fauna Foundation near Montreal, which specializes in chimpanzees.)
So the sanctuary's staff and volunteers were encouraged when Sweet Pea and Darwin started grooming each other through the spaces in their enclosure. The female baboon would sometimes tease him, Liepa said, by offering him toys or blankets through a space between their caging. Once Darwin went to accept her offering, "she would scream and pull it back," Liepa remembers. "She was such a tease."
That interaction is probably very common to people with siblings — but overall, Sweet Pea was very motherly to Darwin, Liepa said.
"Darwin is very shy, and she was quite patient with him."
She suspects Darwin's unusual upbringing is part of why he's so reclusive. "We don't know whether it's because he was paraded around on a leash when he was little, and his former owner took him everywhere with her, whether he liked it or not," she said.
"We don't know if that's the reason, but it certainly seems to be something that must have happened before he came to us, that he was very shy."
The founder of Story Book Farm, Sherri Delaney, has alleged that Darwin was abused by his former owners, a charge Nakhuda's lawyers have strenuously denied. HuffPost Canada reached out to Nakhuda, but she declined an interview.
No matter what his life was like pre-sanctuary, Liepa says it's clear from Darwin's behaviour that he was taken away from his mother too young.
"Macaques should be with their families for the first two or three years of their lives, which is when they teach them how to behave, how to be part of the group," she said.
They think Darwin was about six months old when they took him in, which would mean he was separated from his mother after two or three months. For that reason, "it was great for him to have this relationship with Pea and Pierre."
Once Darwin moved into the enclosure with Sweet Pea and Pierre, Liepa and the volunteers were relieved they got along so well, especially because of their different species. She said the dynamic between the three became very familial, with the baboons serving as "surrogate parents." And when Sweet Pea died last January, Liepa says she was was glad that Pierre and Darwin had each other.
Through Pierre, Darwin is learning what most monkeys learn from their mothers. "It takes another monkey to teach a monkey how to behave," Liepa said.
And even though monkeys are close to humans genetically, Liepa stresses that they aren't domesticated. The sanctuary offers visits to the public, but she regularly has to remind people that they can't cuddle with the lemurs or spider monkeys, no mater how cute they are.
"They're wild animals," she said.
This is a different approach than that of Nakhuda, who has referred to Darwin as her "son." She launched a legal challenge to get him back, which failed when judge ruled that Darwin was "not a domestic animal." After losing her court battle in 2013 she moved to the small village of Pontypool in Kawartha Lakes, where exotic animals were not restricted.
In 2016, she told reporters she owned four monkeys, as well as two miniature donkeys, a wallaroo, several alpacas, two ferrets and a fox. (The municipality banned exotic animals in 2017, but the by-law included a "grandfather" clause that allowed residents to keep their existing animals.)
Watch: Why monkeys don't make good pets. Story continues below video.
Story Book, meanwhile, is launching a fundraiser to raise money for its newest initiative: saving lab monkeys. Across the country, even healthy primates are routinely euthanized after they've served their purpose for medical research, the Globe and Mail notes. The sanctuary has saved three of Canada's nearly 6,500 lab monkeys from death — Cedric, Cody and Pugsley — but they're hoping to house more.
Liepa says she's amazed at the lasting impression Darwin has made on the public.
"Six years later, people still remember him, people talk about him," she said. "I'm going to get my coffee at Second Cup or wherever, and people start talking to me.
"It's certainly a conversation-starter."
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