Helping Hands: Monkeys as Caregivers

By Kristine Dwyer, Staff Writer

 

Minnie, my Capuchin monkey, has made my life so much richer and fuller. My independence has been increased and I have the security of knowing that Minnie can assist with tasks that would be impossible for me without her. For example, she retrieves my cell phone, which is my lifeline for emergencies, and places it on my lap. She can "fetch" a soda or a cool drink or put food in the microwave for dinner. She can scratch an itch or reposition my leg.  We share a bond. She got me out of my depression over being in a wheelchair. Once Minnie arrived, I never looked back. Her presence has enhanced the quality of my life.  She’s my best friend.” – Craig Cook, Helping Hands board member and monkey helper recipient

Monkeys as caregivers? Unbelievable, but true! Man meets monkey at a whole new level beyond the excitement of the circus arena and the animal zoo! These adorable, fascinating creatures are incredibly capable of performing a multitude of simple, everyday tasks. Instead of  “monkeying around,” these primates are being taught to be the arms and legs for persons who have lost the use of their own limbs. Best of all, the companionship and loving bond that is created between the monkey and the care recipient is as important as the tasks performed and the independence that comes from this unique relationship.

Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled, Inc. was founded in Boston in 1979 and has grown from a creative idea to a thriving, national nonprofit organization that offers hope and independence to individuals with severe disabilities. It is the only organization of its kind in the world, employing ten full-time staff of which six are trainers. Since the beginning, Helping Hands has strived to provide personal care assistance to people with the greatest needs, especially people who have become paralyzed from an accident or a disease process.

During the organization’s history, Helping Hands has completed 120 placements of monkey helpers in private homes in over 42 states. They are placed with individuals living with spinal cord injuries, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, stroke, polio, ALS/Lou Gehrig’s Disease and other mobility-limiting conditions. Since the monkeys can not perform every task necessary to support an individual, their family, friends and hired caregivers are also relied upon for personal and health care needs, paperwork and shopping. Helping Hands monkeys complete the circle of care by adding an extra set of hands and round the clock companionship.

Why use monkeys? Helping Hands monkeys are a Capuchin species and are fondly remembered as the organ grinder monkeys that accompanied famous traveling performers. Capuchins are native to the forests of South America and have brown, blond or rust-colored hair on the body with dark brown legs, arms and tails. Their faces are light brown and have a dark brown cap that looks like the hair of a Capuchin monk (from which they get their name). They usually weigh less than ten pounds, are about fifteen inches high and live 30-40 years, on average. Because of their longevity, Capuchin monkey partnerships with humans can last longer than with any other service animal.

Capuchins are possibly the most intelligent of all the monkey species and are easily trained. They are clever problem solvers, consistent workers and are known to be natural tool users both in the wild and in captivity. In addition, they are readily able to use their hands to perform functional tasks and to manipulate objects in ways that no other assistance animal can. 

Monkeys as helpers naturally seek a relationship with the person they assist and they offer unconditional love. They are affectionate, playful, and are able to give hugs and positive touches. Child-like antics and smirky facial expressions are not uncommon behaviors for the monkeys and they ultimately bring laughter and smiles to their households. Capuchins even have the fascinating ability to read emotions and have been known to groom the faces of their recipients as a way to show affection.

The lifetime care, training and supplies for a monkey from birth to placement in a home can cost $35,000 (compared to  $50,000 for training a seeing eye dog with a ten-year lifespan). The Helping Hands organization relies completely on private contributions through grants, foundations, endowment funds, and donations and is able to provide service monkeys at no charge to select individuals who live with severe physical disabilities.

In 2002, Helping Hands restored an historic church to serve as an education and training center for the monkeys called “Monkey College.” This facility offers monkey dorm rooms, play areas, a veterinary center, a kitchen to prepare meals for the monkeys, and classrooms that are designed to support the proper training of monkeys to serve as caregivers and companions to individuals with disabilities. 
The “monkey see, monkey do” training approach starts in a small, soundproofed room beginning with simple tasks and gradually advancing to more complex tasks.

Large white dots and round stickers are used to train the monkeys to stay away from doorways, stoves, medicine cabinets and other potentially dangerous areas. All monkeys are potty-trained (they return to their cage for these activities) and cage-trained so they can have their own space for toys, blankets and a quiet resting place. Positive methods are used to teach monkeys how to operate objects such as light switches, DVD and CD players, microwaves, televisions and speakerphones. Amazingly, monkeys are even capable of turning on a computer, adjusting reading glasses, and setting up food and drinks for their recipients.
 
It takes at least three to five years to train each monkey and during that time the animal’s personality is closely observed so it can be placed with the right individual. When a match is made between a qualified recipient and a monkey who has been completely trained, a staff person from Helping Hands will assist in the recipient’s home by teaching the couple how to care for and work with each other.
 
Recipients of a monkey helper command their behavior by the use of a laser pointer directed by mouth control, along with simple voice commands. This allows a movement-impaired person the ability to communicate their needs to the monkey. Positive reinforcement along with verbal praises, physical affection and rewards of food are the keys to supporting a monkey’s cooperation and task performance. Results have shown that the increased freedom and independence felt by the recipient who can once again gain some control of their environment is almost instantaneous.

The lifelong health of the monkeys is a top goal for Helping Hands veterinary staff. They are committed to making sure that each monkey’s health and nutritional status is monitored regularly and that, once trained, they are placed in appropriate homes that can offer them support, stimulation and love. After the monkeys leave the training center and are placed with recipients, local veterinarians are utilized to oversee the monkey’s health on a yearly basis. Each Helping Hands monkey has a health certificate that is updated annually and meets the state standards where the services are provided.

There are two other meaningful aspects of the Helping Hands Program. One is the focus on prevention programs that teach young people about the unsafe behaviors that can lead to spinal cord injuries. They also learn about the challenges faced by people with disabilities, the value of service animals as caregivers, and the importance of participating in community service projects and fundraisers to help support the care of the monkeys.

The second program aspect is the use of volunteer foster homes for the young monkeys to learn to live in a positive home environment until they are ready to attend Monkey College. Foster homes are also used when monkeys are waiting to be placed with a recipient and after they retire as a service animal.

The world will continue to marvel at the innate abilities of Capuchin monkeys to sense and assist the needs of people whose lives have been compromised by injury or illness. In addition, the therapeutic and supportive bond that develops between these animals and humans is nothing short of miraculous. The monkeys’ devotion, energy and caregiving assistance can offer life-enhancing opportunities and restore the possibility of greater freedom and independence to those they serve. Helping Hands monkeys will continue to empower lives in the future and spark countless stories of inspiration and hope as they complement the care needs of individuals with disabilities.

To learn more about this program and to support their efforts, log onto this website: www.monkeyhelpers.org

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