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Helping Hands: Matching Capuchins With Those in Need

Best of Medical: More than monkeying around

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In the video above, Jennifer Dowdy (CAS’06) takes viewers through Monkey College, and Craig Cook talks about his experiences with Minnie, his monkey helper.

After leaving a psychology class during her first semester at Boston University, Jennifer Dowdy stumbled across an ad for a work-study internship with the nonprofit organization Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled. “I was never cut out for a desk job, and I love animals, so it seemed like the perfect opportunity,” says Dowdy (CAS’06).

Seven years later, her instincts have proven right. As a placement trainer for Helping Hands, she trains capuchin monkeys to acquire practical and social skills through a program called Monkey College.

Scratching an itch. Retrieving a remote control. Turning the page of a favorite novel. For most, these tasks are routine. But for people with spinal cord injuries they can be impossible. Helping Hands monkeys master these tasks and help their recipients gain a sense of independence.

Capuchin monkeys are well-suited for the challenge. They’re intelligent and seem to enjoy performing simple tasks. At six to eight pounds they’re small enough to fit comfortably in most living spaces, and they live up to 40 years. They adapt well, transitioning from Helping Hands to the homes of recipients from as far away as San Diego.

In addition to training capuchins, Dowdy does outreach. With a Helping Hands monkey by her side, she visits schools and camps to educate about spinal cord injury prevention. For the past three years, she has returned to Boston University to discuss her work at the First Year Student Outreach Project (FYSOP), a program that enables incoming freshmen to arrive on campus early, choose and learn about an issue, and spend three days volunteering throughout greater Boston.

“The human-animal bond is tremendous, and difficult to quantify,” says Dowdy. “Our recipients appreciate the monkey’s help with tasks to regain a sense of independence, but beyond that, they cite companionship as the biggest impact on their lives.”

Throughout training and placement, Helping Hands makes sure their monkeys are treated ethically. “They eat a strict diet, and veterinarians on staff monitor their physical health,” says Dowdy. “We also ensure their emotional well-being by providing enrichment activities and making training fun.”

Helping Hands relies on foundation grants and contributions from individual donors and is committed to funding each monkey’s breeding, training, health care, and food for a lifetime. On average, that amounts to $38,000 per monkey. Recipients receive the monkeys for free. 

Helping Hands celebrated 30 years of service on October 24; the first monkey helper, named Hellion, was placed with Robert Foster, a high-level cervical spinal cord injury recipient, in Boston on October 24, 1979. In honor of this milestone, Helping Hands hosted an event at WGBH Studios, debuting a documentary film about the impact monkey helpers have on recipients’ lives. Filmmakers Cary Wolinsky (COM’69) and Yari Wolinsky of Trillium Studios, along with recipients featured in the film, attended the celebration.

This story originally ran October 5, 2009.

Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

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