Monkeys Lend Helping Hands

Disabling diseases like multiple sclerosis (MS) can leave patients with limited independence and overwhelming feelings of isolation. 

Helping Hands has come up with a unique solution that pairs monkey helpers with qualified recipients for a long and mutually rewarding relationship. Helping Hands has been assisting people with mobility issues since they placed their first helper monkey in 1979.

Megan Talbert, executive director, told Healthline that the first monkey, named Hellion, served as a helper and companion to Robert Foster, a Boston man who had paralysis. Hellion helped Foster for more than 28 years until Foster passed away in 2007.

Since that time, 169 helper monkeys have been placed, including Glassie, who now lives with a woman named Corinne, who asked not to be identified by her last name.

Corinne, 53, was diagnosed with MS when she was 18. She’s always loved working with animals, and five years ago when she saw an article about Helping Hands she realized that a helper monkey would make the perfect companion.

Corinne told Healthline, “MS is with me every day now. Waking up every morning, trying to put on a happy face and positive attitude, isn’t that easy anymore … until Glassie came into my life.”

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The ABCs of Monkey Helpers

Glassie is a capuchin monkey who, like all the monkeys at Helping Hands, was born in this country and raised in a foster home until she reached the appropriate age to begin training as a personal assistant at Monkey College. Although they are highly intelligent, capuchin monkeys need further education to become effective helpers. 

There are three increasingly complex stages of training, and the monkeys graduate knowing how to respond to laser pointer-directed commands, such as turning on a specific light switch or retrieving a book from a shelf.

Monkey helper

Training a helper monkey can cost about $40,000, but there is no fee for the recipients, since Helping Hands relies on generous donations.

“Monkeys are a good match for people that need help with everyday tasks within their home environment versus in public places," said Talbert. “Unlike service dogs that are trained for tasks in public, our monkeys are trained to help within the home environment only. Monkeys are able to perform tasks that require advanced manual dexterity skills, such as taking the cap off of a water bottle.”

Glassie attends to Corinne’s needs, helping her get her mail from the mailbox or picking up the remote when she drops it. They have a unique bond.

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Monkey Matchmaking

Capuchin monkeys make the best helpers because of their intelligence, dexterity, and small size. But, just like humans, they each have their own personality. Placing just the right monkey with a recipient requires a bit of matchmaking.

Once a monkey with a compatible personality has been found, the recipient learns to interact with and care for the monkey. The helper monkey is then taken to its new home where it adjusts to living with its new family.

Monkey socialization is based on hierarchy. A monkey will typically place the recipient, and then the person's primary caregiver, at the top of the hierarchy, and assign an appropriate rank to other family members, caregivers, friends, visitors, and even household pets. The monkey will also place him or herself in a particular rank within the hierarchy, according to Helping Hands.

For this reason, when a monkey helper first arrives, it’s crucial that everyone but the recipient ignores the monkey as the bonding takes place and the hierarchy is cemented.

Bath time

Corinne’s daughter, Kelly, explains in a video that when she and Glassie met, “The monkey didn’t like me at first and I was so upset.” Helping Hands explained that the monkey needed to bond with her mother and to help her with the obstacles she faced, first and foremost. Other relationships should be less important and will take time to develop.

Ultimately, Peters understood, saying, “I’m lucky that I have her in my life, but she’s for my mom.”

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There's Nothing Like a Capuchin Companion

Helper monkeys are a big responsibility, and Helping Hands is there every step of the way, making sure the recipients know how to care for the animals.

Glassie has her own “bedroom,” a cage where her toys and blankets are kept and where she goes to sleep, play, or use the restroom. All Monkey College graduates are potty trained to use their cage, lined with paper. She eats specially prepared monkey “chow” and snacks on tasty things like oatmeal. Her favorite food is peanut butter. Getting the jar back from her can be nearly impossible, Corinne said.

“I only have use of my right arm and hand these days, making my wrestling moves pale in comparison to those of a determined monkey,” she said with affection. “Although she loves me with all her heart ... peanut butter prevails.”

What is the best part of having a monkey helper?

“Honestly, her companionship,” Corinne said. “Yes, it’s handy to have a little helper, but I’m grateful to have her just hang out with me. My human folks do their best to help me, but they all have busy lives, jobs, kids, grandkids. Glassie is with me every second of every day.”

All photos courtesy of Helping Hands. For information about applying for a helper monkey through the Helping Hands program, visit their website.