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Heavy petting: Where 'monkids' go to retire

As we make our way through the building that houses 20 primates at the Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary, the keepers constantly usher us out of the monkeys' reach. Hairy little arms thrust through cage mesh, and wary eyes track our movement.

Mike Davies, one of the caregivers, points to Mr. Jenkins, a black-handed spider monkey who swings with incredible ease - grace, even - in the confines of his cage. But don't get too close.

"I've come out of here black and blue all up one arm from Mr. Jenkins," he confesses. It seems the little geezer, who was taken away from his mother at too young an age, specializes in the old pinch-and-twist as a way of getting attention.

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It's not an easy life being a monkey keeper. In an ornery mood, monkeys will bite or scratch. They will pull off your moles while they are grooming you, unaware that it will cause you to perform a jig of pain.

The marmosets, squirrel-sized guys with teeny humanoid faces, may even ejaculate on your head. "That's why I always wear a cap," Mr. Davies says helpfully.

However, the flip side - being a monkey - is no piece of banana cake either. Sherri Delaney, a police officer who runs the sanctuary as "her other day job," works with a small team of people to try to ensure her charges are fed, clean, and mentally and physically stimulated. But it's an uphill battle.

"If you or I were in a 12-by-12-foot jail cell ... their plight is very much the same," Ms. Delaney says.

The tidy, barnlike structure is neatly divided into several cages strewn with straw, toys and the occasional rubber boot (Chelsea the baboon has something of a fetish). It's nothing like their native habitat, but it's a lot better than the alternative.

Ms. Delaney's primates come from laboratories, roadside zoos and misguided owners. Naturally feisty and easily bored in captivity, monkeys are far from being ideal pets, although a devoted subculture of owners dress them in diapers and clothes and refer to them as "monkids."

But nobody with a monkid banks on catching hepatitis from their baby, or receiving a face mauling. The results of this sort of mismatch are predictably tragic: The animals are restrained further (like one resident Japanese macaque, who was confined to a laundry basket when she misbehaved) or abandoned.

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The Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary is at full capacity, but Ms. Delaney says she can think of six more primates in her area that need rescuing.

Incredibly, exotic animals are "phenomenally easy to acquire" in Canada, according to Rob Laidlaw of Zoocheck Canada, an organization devoted to protecting wild animals in captivity. "And at a low cost - lower than a purebred dog or cat."

Exotic-animal auctions are a regular occurrence across the country; primates, kangaroos, fennec foxes, even wildcats and alligators are sold to the highest bidder, however inexperienced.

I wonder out loud if there isn't a law governing the sale and ownership of these animals.

"If you're looking at things like tigers, lions, cheetahs, monkeys ... then it's a complete patchwork. Here in Ontario, they are unregulated except for municipal bylaws," Mr. Laidlaw says. But there's no consistency across the country. "It's really a mess."

Earlier this year, a lion was seized from a home near London, Ont. - not because the deadly animal was in the ownership of someone with questionable expertise in handling it, but because it was thin and living in a "very restrictive pen" in the house, among dozens of other poorly cared-for animals.

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"We've had [human]deaths and injuries and a litany of escapes in this province," Mr. Laidlaw continues. It hasn't been enough to change legislation. Or to change minds - the yearning for a monkid goes very deep.

"These are wild animals. They are not pets," Ms. Delaney says. But dozens of childless women posting Internet pleas for a baby monkey, along with the existence of a cottage industry of monkey seamstresses, suggest they have some very big shoes to fill.

Writer and editor Lisan Jutras has two cats, a Puerto Rican street dog and many garments covered in pet hair.

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