Monkey Business

By MIKE MILIARD  |  October 21, 2009

A healthy monkey, well-fed and taken care of, could live as long as 40 years, and spend 30 of those in service — the average career of a seeing-eye dog, by comparison, is just eight to 10 years.

Just as it does with humans, a monkey education begins with children’s’ toys: stackable rings, balls, cups. “I can teach a monkey something as simple as putting a ball in a cup or a ring on a post,” says Talbert, “and from there I can break down something as complex as putting a DVD in a player and pressing play — breaking that larger task into three or four smaller tasks.”

Each monkey works with one specific trainer, and goes to school in a small, spare room. Every day. It’s a long and very, very, very (very, very) repetitive process.

Only by rote imitation — encouraged with bells, verbal praise, and food rewards — can the monkeys truly internalize their jobs: “We’re not just training tricks — we’re teaching tasks,” says Talbert. “Monkey see, monkey do is really the basis of all our training.”

Once they’ve got those tasks down pat, monkeys will graduate to a different room, where they’re familiarized with a wheelchair. A year or so later, they move on to a space fitted to look like a real home or apartment — there’s a couch and a television, and the trainer will sit and work at a computer, asking only for occasional tasks, mimicking most people’s daily lives.

Upon graduation, most monkeys will have learned to scratch itches, wash faces, flick lights off and on, work a microwave, page through magazines, and more.

“Some monkeys are valedictorians and are through the program in two years,” says Talbert, “and some take a little bit longer.” Slacker simians can still find work. “Monkeys that may not be as motivated, we place with someone who has a little more function.”

0910_monkeys_main
Craig Cook and Minnie
King of the castle
Smarter ones, meanwhile, are assigned more challenging jobs. Cook brags that Minnie is one of those. “They put her out here in California,” he says, because “she’s just a perfect little monkey.”

Helping Hands tries to place 10 to 12 monkeys a year — depending on how much capital it has. The summary cost for each monkey placement — including training, vet care, travel, equipment, and intense lifetime follow-up with recipients — runs about $50,000.

In the first half of its existence, Helping Hands was largely funded by grants from the National Science Foundation and the Veterans Administration. But for the past 15 years or so, it’s relied on philanthropic groups and individual donations. Unsurprisingly, says Talbert, this year “it’s been tough.”

The placement process is exhaustive. It starts with a letter of inquiry, followed by a 12-page written application detailing the applicant’s abilities and limitations, a set of references, and a videotape of the recipient’s living space. The whole process can take more than a year.

“This is something to be taken seriously,” says Talbert. “We want to make sure people are very committed. I’ve had people joke, ‘I adopted a child and it was easier than this!’ ”

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