Helping Hands: Matching Capuchins with Those in Need

Published: October 5, 2009  |  Source:

Scratching an itch. Retrieving a remote control. Turning the page of a favorite novel. For most, these tasks are routine. But for people with spinal cord injuries they can be impossible.

After leaving a psychology class during her first semester at Boston University, Jennifer Dowdy stumbled across an ad for a work-study internship with the nonprofit organization Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled. I was never cut out for a desk job, and I love animals, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity, says Dowdy (CAS06).

Seven years later, her instincts have proven right. As a placement trainer for Helping Hands, she trains capuchin monkeys to acquire practical and social skills through a program called Monkey College.

Scratching an itch. Retrieving a remote control. Turning the page of a favorite novel. For most, these tasks are routine. But for people with spinal cord injuries they can be impossible. Helping Hands monkeys master these tasks and help their recipients gain a sense of independence.

Capuchin monkeys are well-suited for the challenge. Theyre intelligent and seem to enjoy performing simple tasks. At six to eight pounds theyre small enough to fit comfortably in most living spaces, and they live up to 40 years. They adapt well, transitioning from Helping Hands to the homes of recipients from as far away as San Diego.

In addition to training capuchins, Dowdy does outreach. With a Helping Hands monkey by her side, she visits schools and camps to educate about spinal cord injury prevention. For the past three years, she has returned to Boston University to discuss her work at the First Year Student Outreach Project (FYSOP), a program that enables incoming freshmen to arrive on campus early, choose and learn about an issue, and spend three days volunteering throughout greater Boston.

The human-animal bond is tremendous, and difficult to quantify, says Dowdy. Our recipients appreciate the monkeys help with tasks to regain a sense of independence, but beyond that, they cite companionship as the biggest impact on their lives.

Throughout training and placement, Helping Hands makes sure their monkeys are treated ethically. They eat a strict diet, and veterinarians on staff monitor their physical health, says Dowdy. We also ensure their emotional well-being by providing enrichment activities and making training fun.

Helping Hands relies on foundation grants and contributions from individual donors and is committed to funding each monkeys breeding, training, health care, and food for a lifetime. On average, that amounts to $38,000 per monkey. Recipients receive the monkeys for free.

Helping Hands will celebrate 30 years of service on October 24; the first monkey helper, named Hellion, was placed with Robert Foster, a high-level cervical spinal cord injury recipient, in Boston on October 24, 1979. In honor of this milestone, Helping Hands will host an event at WGBH Studios, debuting a documentary film about the impact monkey helpers have on recipients lives. Filmmakers Cary Wolinsky (COM69) and Yari Wolinsky of Trillium Studios, along with recipients featured in the film, will be at the celebration. Local restaurants have donated food, including Columbus Restaurant Group, known for Mistral, Sorellina, and Teatro. Grey Goose Vodka has donated cocktails, and Harpoon has donated beer and there will be a selection of wine.

The Helping Hands 30th anniversary event is on Saturday, October 24, 2009, from 5 to 8 p.m. at WGBH Studios, One Guest St., Brighton. Tickets are $125 and include food and drinks. To purchase a ticket, visit Helping Hands. To volunteer at the event, e-mail Noelle Lafasciano or call 617-787-4419, ext. 105.

For more information

Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled