Monkeys That Help Quadriplegics

Imagine not being able to pick up the phone, walk across the room to turn off the stove, or even scratch an itch. These are the daily life frustrations for many quadriplegics, but some are now being eased with the help of friendly, outgoing and intelligent monkeys.

An innovative program called "The Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled" is placing capuchin monkeys with disabled people who need help with daily tasks. Founded in 1970 by behavioral psychologist, Dr. M.J. Willard, Helping Hands provides capuchins, also known as organ-grinder monkeys, to the disabled with free lifetime support services. The organization also conducts workshops for schools and camps that teach children about spinal cord injury prevention, disability awareness and human-animal bonds.

Sue and Henri

In 1982, a 10-year-old female capuchin monkey named Henrietta, was placed with Sue Strong, who suffered a spinal cord injury in a 1976 car accident and was paralyzed from the neck down. Henrietta, nicknamed Henri, had spent the first 10 years of her life as a pet, but when her owner died, she was donated to a children's zoo. However, she was not comfortable with kids and was donated to the Helping Hands project.

Helping Hands trained Henri to work with Sue and they have been together for almost 19 years. Henri, now 33, puts prepared food in the microwave for Sue, turns the lights on and off and gives Sue back her mouth-stick, which is an instrument that helps her dial the phone and do other things, when it drops from her mouth.

Though Sue has family members that help out during the week, it's impossible for someone to always be with her.

"Monkey helpers help the disabled when they are alone. They cut down on medical costs and make it easier for people to be comfortable in their own homes," Sue says. "Henri's totally reliable. She's a member of the family, a major factor in every part of my life. The tasks Henri performs for me are extremely essential but they actually take backstage to the huge personality she's brought into my life."

Helping Hands is funded by corporate and private sponsorship and supported by such organizations as The Wild Republic ( and Continental Airlines. The monkeys are handpicked from the selective breeding program at Southwick's Zoo in Mendon, Mass.

Monkeys who grow up in a human environment from an early age are more tame and affectionate. So at 6 weeks of age they are given to a carefully-screened foster parent, who then readies the monkeys for their future careers in health care.

It's All in the Training

Jean Amaral, Helping Hands administrator, says the monkeys are trained through positive reinforcement only. They are not harmed or punished during any part of the training process

"If they do not do something, nothing happens. If they do something good or correctly, they are rewarded with praise and usually an edible treat," she says.

Tasks to be learned are broken down into individual steps and repeated until performed correctly. They include actions that are generally taken for granted in everyday life: getting or preparing something to eat or drink, scratching annoying itches, retrieving things that have been dropped or out of reach. The monkeys are also taught to meet individual needs, such as putting a slipped foot back onto a footstool.

Each monkey has five or six individual training sessions per week that last 30 to 45 minutes. Training takes about one year.

"Helping Hands training is like giving these monkeys a college education," says Sue. "Because these monkeys are so intelligent, it's actually stimulating for them. They naturally want to be busy and not just stare into space as they might be if they were being used for other purposes."

Margo and Sammy

Margo Gahagan, of Fond du Lac, Wis., is one of the volunteers who help nurture and rear the monkeys for the Helping Hands program. "I had always wanted a monkey from the time I was a little girl; it's always been my dream," she says.

A little over four years ago, after doing extensive research on monkeys and reading 19 books on capuchins, Margo knew she had to have one. Happily, the very last book she read was about Helping Hands.

"I was just fascinated by it, so I immediately read it from cover to cover and my heart just stopped. This [Helping Hands] was the most amazing way of making someone else's life livable while, at the same time, fulfilling my dream."

It wasn't long before Margo contacted Helping Hands and learned just how strict their foster parenting application/interview process is. Nonetheless, she and her family were determined to go for it.

"We had to fill out extensive paperwork and produce a list of references," Margo recalls. "We also had to videotape each room of our house so Helping Hands could decide if it was suitable and large enough for a capuchin."

Margo also sent videotapes to Helping Hands of her and her daughter talking about why they wanted to become a foster family.

"The process to get Sammy was actually more intense than the process my husband and I had to go through when we adopted our youngest daughter," Margo says. "This is wonderful because becoming a foster parent isn't for everyone. It's a big responsibility and some people can't handle it because it's necessary to be with your monkey at all times. I'm a homebody so this isn't a problem at all for me. My advice to any would-be foster parents is: Be patient! This process takes a tremendous amount of time, love and willingness to stay home."

Sammy at Home

It took Sammy several months to acclimate to his new environment, but once he began to feel at home, he automatically became part of the Gahagan family and very comfortable with other people.

"Helping Hands does a wonderful job matching monkey personalities with foster families," Margo says. "With Sammy we got a perfect match."
Monkeys, just like human babies, need to be diapered, bathed, fed and given a tremendous amount of love. Margo is certain her family have lived up to their end of the foster family bargain because, she says, "Sammy is just a little loverboy. He loves so much at times, especially when he meets new people that he can hardly contain himself."

The Best Thing

When asked what the best thing about having Sammy is, Margo has trouble deciding: "Basically, the best thing is just having Sammy here with us all the time because he adds such joy to our lives. I know he'll make somebody else just as happy some day and I'm sure that what he's done for me and my family will only double for someone who can't do for him/herself."

To find out more about the program or to become a foster parent contact Helping Hands at 617-787-4417 or go to