Helper monkey is a blessing for California quadriplegic

Published: July 3, 2004  |  Source: kansascity.com
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LA HABRA, Calif. – (KRT) – The cell phone drops out of Craig Cook’s lap and tumbles to the floor. The phone is his lifeline. Cook is quadriplegic – he lost the use of his legs and has only limited use of his arms after a 1996 car wreck.

“That could be devastating in a fire or emergency,” says, Cook, 38, in the kitchen of his La Habra condominium.

But that’s when Minnie springs to action. She pulls the cord to open her cage, scampers to the kitchen floor, grabs the phone, scales Cook’s leg and puts it back on his lap. She climbs to his shoulder, nuzzles against his face and eagerly awaits her reward – a fingertip dab of peanut butter.

“How cool is that?” Cook says, beaming like a proud father. “My very own monkey.”

That’s right, Minnie is a real, live “helper monkey.” The first placed in California.

She’s an 18-year-old South American capuchin monkey, trained to help Cook do much of what his body won’t allow him to do.

She’s a 5-pound bundle of fur with big, brown, expressive eyes and tiny fingers that resemble a child’s hands. She turns lights on and off, opens soda bottles and retrieves Hot Pockets from the microwave.

She’s the same breed as “Marcel” on the TV show “Friends” and the Anaheim Angels’ Rally Monkey, a big plus since Cook is a lifelong Angels fan.

Helper monkeys are among a rare family of animals – including seeing-eye dogs and police canines – trained to help humans. Capuchins, trained for decades dating back to the old organ grinders, can grasp and carry objects, making them uniquely equipped to serve as a “second set of hands” to the disabled.

Helping Hands, a Boston nonprofit group that has been training capuchins for 25 years, brought Minnie to live with Cook in April.

Of the 90 monkeys it’s placed, she’s the only in California. Executive Director Judi Zazula worked through restrictive state codes on exotic animals to get permission for Minnie to enter the state.

“Craig is such a terrific guy and Minnie was in need of somebody who could give her the love she deserves,” Zazula said. “The fact we were able to bring them together is really special.”

For Cook, Minnie is not only a trained, reliable helper, she’s also fast becoming a friend. He keeps a photo of Minnie on his mantle in a frame with the inscription: “Daddy’s Little Princess.”

Sure, it was a joke to start, but it’s starting to ring true.

“At first I’d look at her in the cage and just laugh, `How did I get a monkey?'” he said. “But she’s amazing.

“It’s starting to feel like I have a daughter.”

Sitting in his living room with Minnie resting quietly in her 5-foot tall wire cage on a recent weekday, Cook recalled the unlikely path that brought him the unusual companion.

At the start of 1996, Cook was living well. Friendly, athletic and handsome, he’d been a star quarterback at La Habra’s Sonora High School. He worked as a computer-aided designer for a Fullerton plastics company, a job that afforded him a home in Anaheim Hills and a lake home near Laughlin, Nev.

But life as he knew it ended on Jan. 12, 1996. He took a client from Seattle out for drinks at a Newport Beach bar. The client, who’d flown in from a rainy Pacific Northwest day, marveled at the warm night.

So Cook rolled down the top of his six-speed Z28 Camaro and let his friend drive. He floored it around the curve of a freeway on-ramp. The car spun, flipped and landed upright.

“I just remember my buddy saying, `You all right?'” Cook remembered. “I said, `No, I feel like my arms are on fire.'”

There was no fire. The impact shattered his Cervical bone, lodging a shard into his spinal cord. He lost feeling in his arms and legs. Cook refused to believe he wouldn’t walk again. He took on Rehabilitation with the vigor he’d approached sports.

“It was just like Hell Week in football. I just needed to think of it as a series of Hell Weeks in a row,” he said.

With months of work, he regained some arm movement. But it took hours just to move a wooden block across a table.

His four-year relationship crumbled. His girlfriend – who had helped him up in the morning and served him food – left without warning. He was left feeling abandoned, lonely and depressed.

A friend suggested he look into getting a pet to keep him company. But he’s allergic to dogs. The friend stumbled across some information about Helping Hands online.

“A monkey?” Cook said. “I almost died laughing at the Web site. But, what the heck, I thought, I’ll give it a try.”

At first, Helping Hands gave him little hope. Getting a permit in California, they said, was nearly impossible. But late last year, he got a second call telling him they would reconsider.

“I really did it for the novelty at first,” Cook said. “Once it looked like it might happen, I was nervous.”

In April, they flew out with Minnie. At 18, she had already spent several years as a helper monkey and was highly trained. She immediately warmed to Cook.

He’d found his match.

When the trainers left, Cook could hardly believe he actually had a monkey for a roommate.

“Like most people, I’d seen monkeys at the zoo, but I’d certainly never touched one before,” he said. “And now she was mine? To keep?”

Cook spent several weeks building a rapport with Minnie, getting her to respond to the one- and two-word commands she had learned through repetition and reward.

“Sun,” Cook says, and Minnie hops onto the counter and flips on the lights.

“Fetch.” Minnie picks up a towel from the floor and returns it to his lap.

When Cook’s left foot falls sideways on his wheelchair foot rest, he calls out, “Minnie. Foot.”

She scampers over to the wheelchair, uses her strength to straighten his foot again, then climbs on his lap for her peanut butter reward.

Cook realizes it’s chunky. Minnie prefers the creamy kind, but takes the treat without complaint.

He holds up his hand and Minnie responds with a strong high-five.

“Isn’t that cool?” Cook says, laughing.

He’s had a lot of “cool” moments lately. One night, Cook watched an Angels game on TV while Minnie lounged in her cage. Angel veteran Tim Salmon cracked a two-run home run that led the Angels to victory and Cook screamed out, “Hey, Minnie, did you see that? We just won.”

She chirped with excitement, as though she was rooting the Angels on, too. Cook was convinced he had his own Rally Monkey.

Then, he realized, Minnie was likely just responding to his excitement. “And I thought, `Oh, man. I’m talking to a monkey.'”

Still, he’s beginning to understand how much Minnie responds to and displays emotions. She’s mischievous, getting into cookies and sweets when she shouldn’t. And if he scolds her with an “Uh-uh” too loudly, she pouts as though he hurt her feelings.

At night, in the dark, she’ll make sounds as if she’s looking for reassurance.

And she gets colds just like a child. Cook tracked down a veterinarian who has experience with monkeys, in case anything serious happens to Minnie. But for little illnesses, he keeps a bottle of children’s Dimetapp for her.

In addition to her oat-based “monkey biscuits,” he feeds Minnie a Flintstones vitamin each day.

“I thought it was a joke at first to call her my daughter,” Cook said. “But the more I’m with her, the more I realize, it’s like having a little kid.”

The average life span for capuchins is about 40 years. So Cook figures he has about 20 years with her.

“I feel so lucky. She’s really helped me out of the funk I was in, that’s for sure,” Cook said.

“And between her hands and my brain, I think we make a pretty good team.”

BY ERIC CARPENTER AND OLIVIA MACIEL
The Orange County Register