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Amy Johnson Jan 7, 2010

Monkey Business

A slippery road, faulty equipment, a medical mishap. Just a sample of accidents which have caused thousands of people to spend their lives confined to a wheel chair or bed. Paraplegics and quadriplegics struggle with everyday executive functioning such as teeth brushing, getting dressed, changing the channel and sipping from a straw...compounding feelings of helplessness, isolation and depression.

In the late 1970s, psychologist Mary Jane Willard had friend who became a quadriplegic after such an accident. He was unable to eat, drink or blow his nose without a nurse's assistance (Hahn, E., 1982). Dr. Willard, who as a student, worked with famous behaviorist B.F. Skinner, got the idea to use chimpanzees as aides. With their human-like qualities and opposable thumbs, the primates seemed to be a viable solution to help them live independently. Skinner, however, suggested she use capuchin monkeys because they are more nimble, smaller in size, more intelligent, have good memory skills and live about 30 years. She used Skinners reinforcement system for training and in 1979, she placed her first monkey, Hellion. Dr. Willard subsequently founded the Boston-based nonprofit program ''Helping Hands: Simian Aides for the Disabled.Since then, hundreds of capuchin monkeys have been eager hands...and sweet little companions...for paralyzed patients.

The dexterity of the diminutive simians allows them to perform meaningful and practical operations such as opening and closing doors, turning lights off and on, scratching an itch on a face, spoon feeding and inserting a disc and turning on the DVD player. Additionally, the person with whom the monkey is placed has a friend and aide nearby 24 hours a day with whom he creates a tight bond and close relationship. In fact, there was a quadriplegic man who passed away and for weeks his monkey would pick up a framed photo of the man and kiss it before putting it back on the table.

Helping Hands does, however, take the placement of monkeys seriously. Only 6-12,000 of the 250,000 quadriplegics in the U.S. are qualified candidates. Criteria include level of injury, living situation, vocational activity and attendant resource availability. The capuchin monkeys are supplemental to, not replacements for, human caregivers.

For more information on this remarkable program, visit

Amy Johnson is a counselor, lecturer, founder, and program director of the non-profit organization, Teacher's Pet: Dogs and Kids Learning Together.

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