Meet the lawyer who won the IKEA monkey trial // Badass Lawyers

Kevin Toyne on trying a case that went viral

By Daniel Fish

On Friday May 2nd, 2014


In December 2012, a small monkey wearing a puffy shearling coat sauntered into a Toronto IKEA, having just escaped from a car in the parking lot. Once shoppers spotted the well-dressed primate, known as Darwin, they snapped his picture and posted the photographs online. Almost instantly, the images circulated far and wide, triggering a media storm around the world. The commotion ended when Toronto Animal Services apprehended Darwin and transported him to Story Book Farm Primate Sanctuary in Sunderland, about an hour northeast of Toronto.

At this point, the light-hearted story turned into a nasty legal battle. Darwin’s owner, Yasmin Nakhuda, sued the sanctuary to regain possession of the animal.

This past September, a Superior Court judge ruled in the sanctuary’s favour, explaining that Nakhuda lost ownership of the monkey as soon as Darwin left her car. And in February, Nakhuda, a lawyer herself, decided not to appeal.

Here, Precedent speaks to Kevin Toyne, lawyer for the sanctuary and partner at Brauti Thorning Zibarras LLP, about the case and how he managed the “extremely intense” media exposure.

How did you get involved in the case?

Kevin Toyne: My fiancée and I started to volunteer at the sanctuary in the fall of 2012. Right away, I hit it off with the founder of the sanctuary. She’s a police officer in the Durham region and my firm specializes in defending police officers, so we had a lot to talk about.

Now, fast-forward a couple of months. I’m working late one Sunday night and I take a break and start browsing the Internet. And I see that a cute little monkey has just been found at an IKEA store. After I learned the monkey had been taken to the sanctuary, I sent an email to the sanctuary saying, ‘If anything happens and you guys get sued, please give me a call.’ Sure enough, the next day I got a call. Then things took a turn for the interesting.

You also took the case on a pro bono basis. Did you expect it to last for more than a year?

KT: When I took the case, I thought, ‘Well, it’s a charity that does good work. It might take a day or two of my time to throw some material together and go to court.’ I had no idea it was going to be a four-day trial that would take hundreds of hours of my time.

What’s it like to be part of a case that becomes a punch line on social media?

KT: It was unlike anything I’d experienced before. The media interest, particularly in the first couple of months, was extremely intense. I was deluged with emails, voicemails and phone calls from all media. I was trying just to get work done on that file and other files and, literally, the phone wouldn’t stop ringing.

That would be hard, in particular, for lawyers who aren’t used to being the centre of a media storm.

KT: And most people aren’t. Years ago, in university, I was involved in a radio show. I’ve done a bit of politics as well, so I had some experience interacting with the media. Not necessarily fielding calls from Anderson Cooper, but any experience I had did make it easier.

Do you think the media went beyond the sensational headlines and grappled with the legal facts of the case? 

KT: At first, I think a lot of people saw the dispute as a custody fight over a child — even though that’s not how litigation over animals works. But once you explain to people that an animal is a piece of property, at least from the law’s eyes, it made sense. Then people stopped thinking it was a fight over who the best parent is going to be.

Did you enjoy working on the case?

KT: It was a lot of fun. Not a lot of people get to work on a case where the media are live-blogging the questions being asked during the trial. So, it was a unique experience.