Help for the Disabled: Trained Monkeys Proving Trusty Companions for Those in Need

By Philip Bethge

Specially-trained Capuchin monkeys in the US are helping physically disabled people with the housework by performing tasks such as removing garbage, fetching the telephone or switching on the microwave. The furry companions are also helping paraplegics cope with loneliness.

It's her small hands that make Minnie especially useful. Hairy and slender, with slim fingers and black nails, the Capuchin monkey's hands are just right for twisting open a bottle of juice or fetching the telephone. And when Craig Cook's head itches, Minnie comes and scratches it until he feels better.

"She is more human than you would think," Cook says. The 44-year-old American, who has been paraplegic for more than 14 years, runs his stiff fingers lovingly through Minnie's fur as she cuddles on his lap, observing his guest curiously with her large, brown eyes. Then the monkey jumps up and crosses the kitchen of Cook's bungalow at a wild run, screeching and leaping, a bundle of energy wrapped up in dark brown fur.

"Pretty amazing, isn't it?" Cook says, his eyes shining. He has shared his bungalow here in La Habra, near Los Angeles, with the 30-year-old Capuchin monkey for the past six years. They watch Los Angeles Angels baseball games on TV together, or enjoy the California sun from the patio. And when Cook has "one of those bad days," it's Minnie who manages to make him laugh.

"It's wonderful to have an animal like that at home," Cook says. A former engineer and American football quarterback, he broke his spine in a car accident. He's very lucky to have Minnie -- there are only 45 Capuchin monkeys like her in the entire US, and Minnie is one of the best.

Monkey School

Minnie spent several years in training at the Monkey College, a facility run by a Boston-based aid organization called Helping Hands. This unusual school trains monkeys as household assistants and life partners for paralyzed people -- with great success. "The Capuchin monkeys provide independence and the gift of joy and companionship to the recipients, says Helping Hands employee Andrea Rothfelder. "These animals are very affectionate and loving; a lot of recipients call it a little miracle when their monkey moves in with them."

Director of training Alison Payne describes the Monkey College as a "mixture of pre-school and zoo." Helping Hands has a total of 180 monkeys, 50 of them currently being trained in Boston. Here in the three-story center, the monkeys practice using light switches, drawers, bottles and CD players. They learn the actions first in a room with only Spartan furnishings; later they practice in a "teaching apartment" outfitted with a wheelchair, bed, bookshelf and kitchenette.

Trainers drill the monkeys on around 30 commands, including "fetch," for retrieving an object, and "trash," for taking something to the garbage can. "Push" might mean the monkey should shut the refrigerator door, while "open" would achieve the opposite. Motivation for learning tasks is provided with peanut butter and spray can whipped cream.

"The monkeys are naturally curious," Payne says. "We try to expand their attention space." Still, the monkeys are also allowed some time off. Today Chichi and Jessica are romping around the playroom, chasing bubbles. For their classmate Tricia, it's bath day. Trainer Jennifer Evans has filled the kitchen sink with a lukewarm bubble bath, where Tricia is splashing about, poking her soaking wet head over the edge. A few minutes later, the trainer comes over to rub her dry.

"They're very much like two-year-olds," Payne says. Actually, the monkeys are between eight and 10, the ideal age range for drilling and training, when they start at the Monkey College. First, they get used to people by living in foster families. Next come two to four years of training. Once they're housetrained, they can move in with a disabled person.

Inseparable Companions

When Cook began his life together with Minnie, the evening that ruined his life was already several years behind him. On January 12, 1996, the engineer met a colleague for dinner in Los Angeles. The two left the restaurant shortly before midnight. "It was a mild evening, and Tyler wanted to take a drive in my convertible," Cook recalls. As they sped down the highway, Cook's colleague lost control of the 300-horsepower car. The vehicle flipped over and slid down an embankment. Cook's spine snapped instantly; his colleague was barely hurt.

Cook lost everything that day -- his job; his girlfriend, who soon moved out; but above all control over his own body. Unable to adjust to his new life, he found himself sliding into depression. But when a friend heard of Helping Hands, Cook contacted the organization and sent an application video. A couple of months later, Minnie entered his life.

"When the trainers came out here, they stayed for about a week," he recalls. "It was only then that she accepted me as the new king." That's the way of Capuchin monkeys -- they live in groups and choose their leaders with care.

Today, Cook and Minnie are inseparable. "Spoon," Cook says and the monkey fetches one from the silverware drawer. "Sun" -- Minnie turns on the light. "Can you do hand?" -- Minnie hoists her master's arm, which has slipped down from the armrest. He uses that hand to operate his wheelchair.

"Minnie can be lifesaving for me," Cook says. One time, his wheelchair got stuck on the patio as the sun was going down. Cook knew he was facing an entire night sitting in the dark, freezing and getting wet, until his caregiver arrived in the morning. He called Minnie, who brought his telephone. An hour later, help was there. "I had tears in my eyes," Cook says.

"The monkeys can be a lifeline; however, the most important thing of all is the companionship that they bring and this unconditional love," says director of training Payne. "Suddenly you have this little monkey person at home who just thinks that you are the coolest thing ever."

'They Alleviate the Pain and the Loneliness'

Helping Hands employees tell the story of a veteran who lost both his legs in Iraq. "He says that the monkey is the only one who takes him the way he is and who doesn't notice that he hasn't any legs," Rothfelder says. The monkeys could never take the place of a full-time caregiver, "but they allieviate both the pain and the loneliness of being home alone and also provide some tasks in the house."

It's hardly surprising that the clever Capuchin monkeys are in hot demand, but Helping Hands is only able to provide between six and eight of the monkeys to paralyzed individuals each year. It costs the organization around $40,000 (€30,500) to train a single monkey, all of which must come from donations. The service is free for the patients.

Craig Cook can count himself lucky -- his Minnie has granted him a new life. He remembers clearly the moment when the monkey jumped onto his shoulder for the first time, after five months together. "Suddenly she rubbed her fingers through the back of my hair," he says. "That's the ultimate sign of affection."

Cook estimates Minnie could live another 15 years, but he's loath to think beyond that point. The monkey won a place in his heart long ago.

"Minnie, are you OK?" -- these are the words he'll use to call the monkey tonight, after the caregiver has helped him into bed. And Minnie will answer him, from her cage in the living room, where she rolls herself up beneath a small, light blue blanket.

"And she will go toot toot toot," Cook says. Then he gives a small smile and explains: "That means, 'Everything is all right.'"

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