Since 1918, dogs have been proven to be more than just a pet. From participating in wars to assisting people with specific health needs, service dogs can be counted on. But did you know that aside from service dogs, there is another type of companion animal that can also be of great help for people with disabilities or health problems?
Believe it or not, Capuchin monkeys are making its name known in the service animal industry. Because of their dexterous hands and fine motor skills, capuchin monkeys are being trained to help people with movement disabilities live more and do more.
The Helping Hands company is a non-profit organization that has been around since the year 1979. For 39 years, the organization built from kindness has been providing people with spinal cord injuries and mobility impairments with a highly trained capuchin monkey for free!
Travis Amick, a 31-year-old man with quadriplegia is one of the numerous people gifted with a highly-trained Capuchin monkey- Siggy. The 30-year-old Capuchin monkey is one of the 120 monkeys which came from a closed breeding facility of the Helping Hands. According to the non-profit organization, these monkeys are initially nurtured to be accustomed around humans. And when they reach the mature age of 10 years old, they are then enrolled in a training school where they are taught to know the things they needed to.
“Their education is all based on positive reinforcement,” Angela Lett, the spokeswoman of the Helping Hands, explained, “Trainers will ring a bell and say ‘good job’ when a monkey gets a skill right.”
According to Angela, finding the right monkey for the right human is very important for the program to work. Just like how online dating works, there are factors that should be considered before getting the perfect match. For example, the overall physical health condition of the owner-to-be must be assessed well in order for him to be provided with the right capuchin monkey he needs.
Travis, for instance, has retained the mobility of his arms. Thus, even if he is suffering from quadriplegia, Travis can handle Siggy and show him that he is the alpha of the house. However, if Travis is a complete quadriplegia, he would definitely need another person to assist with his needs. This way, the Capuchin monkey will know that he has no dominance over his master.
“If we have, say, a quadriplegic woman whose husband is taking care of her, we want a very submissive monkey,” Angela further explained.
But if a capuchin gets comfortable with his master, then the disabled person who needs its assistance can take advantage of their dexterous hands and fine motor skills.
“Capuchins have a very high strength-to-weight ratio,” Angela said, explaining what makes Capuchin a preferable service animal. “This allows them to do things like open drawers and doors.”
Not only can capuchins lift things and open doors, but they can also reposition the limbs of their owner if it will slip from the foot or armrest of their wheelchair. For people with mobility impairment, this capability of capuchins is highly-beneficial.
Aside from that, capuchins are also very intelligent animals. They can learn how to unscrew bottle caps, insert straws, operate CDs and DVDs, and even turn the pages of the book their owner is reading.
“Shortly after Travis had Siggy, his wheelchair got stuck in an awkward reclining position and when he tried to call his sister for help, his cell phone dropped on the ground and the battery popped out,” Angela mentioned how capuchins can even respond to situations they are not trained to do. “Siggy collected both pieces of the phone and put the battery back in.”
However, Angela notes that capuchin monkeys are not meant to live forever with their owner. As of now, the American Veterinary Medical Association considers capuchin monkeys as helpers more than animal pets. Thus, in case their owner dies, the Capuchin monkey is retrieved by the Helping Hand organization to return to their training habitat.
And although the efficiency of having Capuchin monkeys as an animal companion has been proven, what the Helping Hand foundation has not explored is whether the capuchin monkeys experience grief when they lose their owner.
However, they are hoping that returning to the place where they had trained is enough to provide comfort for the Capuchin monkeys and ease their pain.
“Because they’re so hierarchical, they remember individuals,” Angela explained. “They can determine, ‘Here are my favorite monkey friends from last time, here are the trainers I know, here are the new ones.’”
Angela would also like to emphasize that Capuchin monkeys are only meant to assist their owners in the confines of their home. Helping Hands is not allowing the capuchin monkeys to be with their owners in any public place. This way the Capuchin monkeys are protected from acquiring diseases and incidence of bites are avoided.
Watch the edifying video below and learn more about the Capuchin monkeys. Find out how these primates help people with spinal injury and mobility impairments live more and more!
Photos and Video | Great Big Story and Robin Schwartz for TIME