Monkey Business

Boston's an academic city, even for capuchins who attend Brighton's Monkey College, where they're trained to be lifesavers for the disabled
By MIKE MILIARD  |  October 21, 2009

VIDEO: Bath time at Helping Hands

Biting commentary
At least one animal rights group, PETA, has complained that, among other things, Helping Hands’s monkeys’ teeth are extracted. COO Megan Talbert notes teeth are removed because “should a monkey ever bite, or should anyone claim they’ve been bitten, that animal can be put to death for rabies testing, no questions asked. As we see it, it’s kind of a life-insurance policy.”
Craig Cook remembers when friends tried to draw him out of a deep depression — by offering to get him a monkey.

“I just started laughing,” he says. “That’s all I need is a frickin’ monkey around the house!”

Cook, who lives in La Habra, California, is a quadriplegic. He’s been in a wheelchair since he was 29, when a car accident left him with a broken neck. He doesn’t even have a dog. Why on earth would he want to be saddled with looking after a clever, compulsively curious, potentially mischievous primate?

That’s the thing: the monkey helps look after him.

Cook’s capuchin companion, Minnie, is a graduate of Helping Hands in Brighton, which celebrates its 30th anniversary this month. At the nonprofit “school” — the only such institution in the country — monkeys like Minnie train for two to four years before being matched with people nationwide who’ve experienced spinal-cord injuries or suffer from muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

Recipients pay nothing for their new friends, who live with them sometimes as long as three decades, assisting with the mundane tasks of daily life when humans are unavailable: picking up dropped phones, opening bottles, playing CDs, even preparing food and feeding them.

Not to mention, says Megan Talbert, Helping Hands’s chief operating officer, “providing a huge level of companionship for people who spend a great deal of time alone in their homes.”

Most important for people like Cook, a monkey helper could quite literally be a lifesaver. “My phone is my lifeline,” he says. “Before, when I dropped it, I’d have to wait for a mailman or a neighbor. Now I just say, ‘Minnie, can you fetch?’ ”

A life of service
Personally, I’ve long fantasized about a small staff of monkey butlers, natty in sharp tuxes and ready to cater to my every indolent whim. That’s probably the by-product of a pop culture gone ape, filled with smiling simian sidekicks from Curious George, to Chim-Chim, to Bonzo.

Though monkeys are especially ill-suited to be pets, capuchins — a smallish South and Central American species best known in less-enlightened eras as organ-grinders’ pets and greyhound jockeys — do make for helpful companions when correctly trained.

First, they’re super smart, and have superb manual dexterity. Second, where recent headlines have shown how fully grown chimpanzees can be viciously dangerous, capuchins are quite friendly. “It’s like comparing a tiger to a housecat,” says Talbert. “They have an affinity toward humans and like to build that relationship. Opening a bottle of water or pushing the buttons on a CD player — that’s something they really enjoy.”

The students currently housed in the so-called Monkey College on Cambridge Street — there are 45 to 50 monkeys, including some retirees — were all born in Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon, and then raised in volunteer foster homes for a decade or more until they were old enough to start training.

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  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Mammals, Nature and the Environment, Wildlife,  More more >
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