Becky Thompson calls herself a monkey mom.
She has lived for six years with Kristi, a 22-year-old capuchin monkey trained to help her with everyday tasks she can no longer perform since a 1981 accident left her a quadriplegic.
“Before I had a monkey it was like looking at a picture in black and white,” said Thompson, who received her first monkey helper nine years after her accident. “Now it’s all brighter and in color and it just seems like everything is complete. She’s my baby.”
Kristi, Thompson’s second monkey in 14 years, is her arms and hands for otherwise simple tasks like scratching an itch, combing her hair, loading a CD or a video tape and picking up objects.
“She’s always ready to help with my phone or get me a book or something to eat or drink,” Thompson said from her home in Wilmington, N.C. “She even helps me to feed her.”
Kristi is one of more than 93 monkeys that Boston-based group Helping Hands has trained and placed with quadriplegic people since 1979. The group, which previously used a variety of borrowed facilities to train the animals, recently opened the country’s first “monkey college” to train and place about 20 helpers yearly.
“What happens in this building is nothing short of a miracle,” Jerry McDermott of the Boston city council said during the recent opening of the 6,000-square-foot center.
Inside the historic house in the leafy Brighton neighborhood of Boston live 25 monkeys. Their dorms sit above classrooms and are complete with radio and television.
Food Network and cartoons
At the end of a long day, the student simians relax by watching the Food Network, newscasts, cartoons and even at times wildlife network Animal Planet “although it’s very scary to some of them,” said Judi Zazula, executive director of Helping Hands.
Zazula started more than two decades ago working on training monkeys to help quadriplegics and in 1979 placed Hellion, the country’s first monkey helper, with Robert Foster, whom had lost the use of his limbs in a car crash.
“In the beginning people were amused by the idea,” Zazula, an occupational therapist, said.
But a quarter of a century later, the original pair still lives together and demand for the helpful simians has grown exponentially.
Already, more than 200 patients across the nation are awaiting a capuchin while another 500 requests are pending approval and financial supporters are flocking to the cause.
Among those interested in a monkey helper is Travis Roy, a former Boston college hockey star who has been paralyzed below the neck since a 1995 accident on the ice rink.
“It’s very, very difficult living one day at a time and the release that a monkey can give to an individual is just immense,” the 29 year-old said in an interview. “Judi is going to make many more lives easier and better and I know that if she could she would give every quadriplegic a monkey.”
Independent little creatures
Native to South America, capuchins are the monkeys of choice because of their high intelligence, superior dexterity and ability to form strong bonds in little time with their new companions. Their life expectancy can reach 40 years.
“(Kristi) stole my heart and the bond only grows stronger. We know each other so well and she always knows how I feel,” Thompson said. “Monkeys have exceptional personalities. They are independent little creatures who can easily outsmart you if you’re not watching.”
Thompson for instance once caught Kristi fiddling with a key in an attempt to open a lock on the family refrigerator. The failed bid didn’t discourage the enterprising monkey and much to Thompson’s bewilderment the key soon disappeared, never to be found again.
“You can’t have a monkey like this and not laugh,” she said. "She’s a character.”
Helping Hands’ capuchins are bred a few miles outside of Boston at the Southwick Zoo, New England’s largest. They are then raised by local volunteer foster families for five or six years until ready to be trained.
“It’s like raising a small child,” Megan Talbert, a trainer at the monkey college, said of those adolescent years.
'No flunky monkey'
Training spans anywhere from a 1-1/2 to two years or more depending on the monkey’s skills, but all who enter Zazula’s program graduate.
“There will be no flunky monkey,” she said. “Every monkey is capable of doing something to help. Just picking something up is putting the world in somebody’s hands.”
Monkeys are first taught simple tasks like putting a ball in a cup and are trained to follow a laser beam, which patients use to point to what they want brought to them. Within months they are able to open fridges and load CD players.
The process, from breeding to graduation, costs about $20,000, paid for mainly by grants and donations.
“It’s hard to see the monkeys go,” Talbert said. “But you’re also so proud because you know the monkey will make someone so happy and is an answer to their prayers.”