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Flowers: Monkeys trained to be helping hands

Community voice

Published: Monday, Feb. 17, 2014 12:16 p.m. CDT
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Bruce Flowers, marketing coordinator for NEDSRA

My friend, Angel, told me the other day, “I want a monkey.” I asked what he was talking about and he proceeded to tell me the story of Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers (monkeyhelpers.org), a nonprofit agency from Cambridge, Mass.

Capuchin monkeys are trained from birth to perform small tasks to help people with spinal injuries or, like Angel, who suffer from muscular dystrophy. Angel’s disease has weakened him to a point where he has lost his ability to walk, struggles to sit up without help, and can barely lift his arms to open a drawer. What he can do, once he makes it to his wheelchair, is type on a computer. Via computer, Angel is taking classes online to become a medical coder for insurance companies. He also has a small computer repair business where he installs software for customers and fixes monitors, keyboards and CPUs.

What he has difficulty doing is turning pages, scratching itches, retrieving dropped objects, and repositioning his legs on a wheelchair. A pair of helping hands, even from a monkey, would be great benefit to Angel.

After reading their website, I learned that the 6- to 8-pound monkeys attend Monkey College for about three to five years where they are trained in an increasing complexity of tasks. They first start in a cubicle with a trainer to learn how to be rewarded for accomplishing a task. The first reward is a ringing bell followed by a lick of peanut butter. At the end of “cubicle” training, the reward has become a verbal praise like “good boy/girl."

The next phase of training involves more complex tasks like opening bottles or turning on lights using a laser pointer to direct their action. The monkeys are also introduced to wheelchairs in this phase. The last training room is a home-like room called the “Apartment." It contains real appliances, TV’s, and electronics that the monkeys learn to operate with instruction.

It is a fascinating concept, and Angel has already sent his first application to be considered for a trial run with the monkey. My thought, however, is “who is going to take care of the monkey?” With one caretaker already helping Angel, will there be double-duty, literally, with taking care of the monkey also? I hope not, and his mother supports the idea of a helper monkey in the house.

Bruce Flowers is the marketing coordinator for Northeast DuPage Special Recreation Association.

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