You’ve heard of guide dogs and therapy horses, but have you heard of monkey helpers?
“I didn’t have much of a life before Sophie,” says wheelchair-bound Judy. Sophie is a capuchin monkey trained at Helping Hands Monkey Helpers for the Disabled in Boston. “When I come into the room, she makes a fuss over me, and I love that. How have I lived so long without a monkey?” says Judy. “Sophie changed my life.”
Helping Hands has been providing capuchin monkey helpers to quadriplegics and others with severe mobility issues due to injury or illness for more than 30 years. Helping Hands is the only organization in the world that raises and trains monkeys to be human companions. The monkeys provide daily in-home assistance to their wheelchair bound recipients and help them lead independent lives. They also give hope through their companionship.
The research for Helping Hands began with developmental support in 1979 from the National Science Foundation, the Veterans Administration, and the Paralyzed Veterans of America. The goal was to investigate methods involving monkeys that could support veterans who had suffered severe spinal cord injuries while performing military service. In the past 30 years, the organization placed 157 monkey helpers in 38 states to help people struggling with mobility impairments.
Capuchins, indigenous to South America and the most intelligent of the new world monkeys, weigh between 6-8 lbs. and are ideal for assisting home bound mobility impaired individuals. The primates of Helping Hands are born at a closed colony at the Southwick Zoo in the Boston area. They live with volunteer foster families until they are mature enough to go to training at the Helping Hands Monkey college.
During the three to five years in training, the monkeys are taught to respond to commands, and learn tasks like fetching, turning on lights, scratching an itch on a face, and flipping pages of a book. Positive reinforcement is used to teach these important tasks. The monkeys, using their hands to perform functional tasks are able to do what no other assistance animal can accomplish. The most important thing they can do is fetch a dropped phone.
Erica Noyes, a spokesperson for Helping Hands, recalls watching a video clip of one of the monkeys in training. Upon command, the monkey goes to the fridge, gets a water bottle, opens the cap and puts a straw in it for the trainer to drink. She says, “Capuchin monkeys are trained as service animals because of their dexterity and their love of manipulating objects. They are also very clever. It’s amazing how they can be taught a complex task by stringing a number of simple commands together.”
Corrine, who was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis many years ago, received her monkey helper Glassie in 2008, right after her only child moved away to college. Corinne says, “My days now are spent with a new purpose. I wake up to a beautiful, silly, sneaky, smarter than me monkey, who brings me so much joy. Oh, and also, she brings me the phone, remote control and anything else my laser points at.”
Quadriplegics and those immobilized by other impairments often live lives of isolation. The monkeys fill the loneliness with attentiveness and playfulness. Executive director of Helping Hands, Megan Talbert, says “The monkeys don’t see them as disabled. They don’t recognize the things they are unable to do. They see their humans as alpha protectors, and that’s a really important gift the monkeys can give to the recipients who have so much taken away from them.”
The bond between human and monkey is fulfilling to both. In a recent interview for the Helping Hands newsletter, disabled veteran Angie talked about J. Lee, her monkey helper for five years: “J. Lee depends on ME for everything. I depend on her for the love, tenderness, and companionship. Her simple physical contact may be the only touch I receive in a day. There is no way to describe how her little brown eyes looking up at me touches my heart. She is the best thing that ever happened to me.”
An average placement lasts 12-14 years, but as capuchins can live 30-40 years in captivity, a placement can be as long as 25 years. Noyes says the matching process is part “dating service”, and extra care is taken to ensure that the monkey and the human are compatible.
In addition to placing the right monkeys with the right individuals, Helping Hands also provides phone help 24/7, and sends a trainer and occupational therapist to the recipient’s home for the first week of placement to help set up the monkey habitat and teach the recipient how to interact and care for his or her new best friend. The bonding process takes a long time and a lot of patience, but the renewed independence and companionship that is gained is worth all the hard work.
Helping Hands supports each service monkey and his or her human partner during their many years together through interactive mentoring and close supervision of the monkey’s behavioral, nutritional, and veterinary needs. Through the generous support of donors and volunteers, Helping Hands is able to provide these specially trained service animals and their lifetime support free of charge.
To find out how you can help, visit: http://www.monkeyhelpers.org
Watch a short film about Helping Hands by Cary and Yari Wolinsky: Sophie and Judy.
by Lavanya Sunkara