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Connecticut College Magazine: Animal Helpers

For these alumni, working with dogs, horses or monkeys to help and heal humans is more than just a job. It's a passion.

by Bailey Bennett '14                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                          Original Article

In 1916, a German scientist established one of the first schools to train dogs to guide returning soldiers blinded by mustard gas in the trenches of World War I. Dorothy Harrison Eustis, a wealthy American living in Switzerland, wrote a story about the school in the Saturday Evening Post in 1927 and subsequently helped to found the first school for “seeing-eye” dogs in this country.

From this relatively recent beginning, scores of programs and organizations now train and provide canine assistants to individuals with disabilities. Signal dogs assist the deaf. Mobility dogs help individuals who are confined to wheelchairs. Service dogs now include canines that sense the onset of seizures and others that can monitor a diabetic's glucose level and fetch a snack when it dips too low.

While dogs remain by far the most common animal helpers, miniature horses, monkeys, cats, birds and even pot-bellied pigs are all being used to assist individuals with physical, cognitive and psychological disabilities.

The use of assistance animals “is absolutely on the rise,” says Gennifer Furst '97, associate professor of sociology at William Paterson University of New Jersey and an expert on the use of animal programs in prisons (see book review in this issue's Ink story). “We are seeing it expand to different areas of social services. There is increased recognition of the role that non-humans play in a human's life.”

Beyond service animals — which are individually trained to assist with specific tasks — is a menagerie of therapy animals that calm, comfort or otherwise assist patients and clients in therapeutic settings such as a psychologist's office, nursing home, hospital or school. Therapy animals also include those used in a therapeutic treatment, such as horses and, more controversially, dolphins.

One reason for the increasing popularity of animal helpers is the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which, in affirming the civil rights of the disabled, mandated unprecedented public access for service animals. The U.S. Department of Transportation went a step further, requiring airlines to provide access to animals that give “emotional support” to travelers with mental disabilities, a broader category than the ADA definition of service animal.

The trend is also being fueled by increased awareness and diagnosis of “invisible” disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorders and, among returning military veterans, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. In many cases, people with these disorders have benefited from interacting with service and therapy animals.

In this environment, it's no wonder that training and working with assistance animals is an increasingly popular career choice. In the following pages, Bailey Bennett '14, an English and film studies major, looks at the working lives of four graduates who are finding personal and professional satisfaction helping animals help people. — Patricia M. Carey, Editor


MONKEY TEACHER

Jennifer Evans '06 sits cross-legged on a linoleum floor with a 25-year-old capuchin monkey named Dillon and a set of bright-colored stacking rings. Nearby is a plastic cup of peanut butter and a shiny concierge bell.

Dillon, wearing a diaper, paces back and forth, sometimes climbing into Evans's lap or perching on her shoulder. Evans shines the beam of a laser pointer on a plastic ring. Dillon grabs it and slides it onto the toy's conical base. Evans dings the bell and gives the monkey a lick of peanut butter from her finger.

“Good girl,” Evans says. “Nice work, Dillon.”

Praise, peanut butter and endless repetition are all in a day's work for Evans, one of five placement trainers at Helping Hands, an Allston, Mass., nonprofit that trains service monkeys as live-in assistants for individuals with spinal cord injuries and other serious neurological disabilities.

Growing up in Farmington, Conn., Evans was sure she wanted to be a veterinarian. At Connecticut College, she majored in biology with a focus on pre-veterinary medicine, volunteered at the Mystic Aquarium and did her College-funded internship at a veterinary clinic in England. After experiencing the pace and pressure of a veterinary practice, however, she realized that she still wanted to work with animals — just not as their doctor.

After graduation, Evans spent two years as a teaching assistant in Boston. Then she saw a television news report about Helping Hands. She signed on as a volunteer; several months later, she was hired as a trainer.

Evans works with 10 monkeys and is responsible for their care and training, from potty training to cage cleaning to weekly baths. The job is hard, messy and sometimes tedious, but Evans loves it. Working with monkeys, she says, is “something you never get tired of.”

Evans teaches each monkey to perform tasks that may be difficult or impossible for a disabled individual, including picking up dropped objects, turning on lights, fetching food from the refrigerator and loading a DVD player.

The natural traits and intelligence of capuchins make them uniquely suited to assist humans, says Christopher Krupenye '11, a doctoral student researching primate cognition at Duke University. In their native South American habitat, they are active foragers, “so they spend a lot of time manipulating objects and are quite good at solving physical puzzles to acquire food,” he says. They also are highly social and build strong bonds with humans.

Each Helping Hands monkey is trained for three to four years. In between one-on-one training sessions, monkeys play with their trainers or socialize with other trainers and monkeys. Play includes enrichment activities such as figuring out how to extricate treats from complex containers or climbing on a room-sized jungle gym.

The initial training focuses on basic skills and task completion in a small, bare room with few distractions. In the second stage, additional household objects are introduced, including a microwave and DVD player. Also at this stage, Evans typically will begin potty training and introduce an electric wheelchair.

“We train them using positive reinforcement, meaning we only acknowledge tasks done correctly — by ringing a bell, along with verbal praise and a treat,” Evans says. “The monkeys can learn hundreds of vocab words, but we train them with about 30 basic command words and use a laser pointer to help identify objects for them to manipulate.”

Training helps monkeys to control their natural curiosity and impulsiveness. For example, like small children, monkeys love to flip light switches off and on. With the command word “sun,” they learn to press the switch — just once.

The final training takes place in a fully furnished space known as “the Apartment.” Here, Evans helps each monkey become accustomed to furniture, windows and other features of a typical home. The monkey learns that some objects can be manipulated or retrieved, while others should be left where they are. Evans also teaches the monkey how to keep a wheelchair user company by perching on the back of her chair or cuddling in her lap.

The hardest part of the job is when a monkey is finally ready for placement in a recipient's home. “They really become almost like my own children,” she says. “Monkeys have every range of emotion that a person has, which makes for a very strong bond and understanding of each other.”

In April, one of Evans's trainees, 19-year-old Jerri, was placed with Bradley Maze, 24, who was paralyzed in a diving accident five years ago. A Helping Hands trainer spent a week at Maze's home in Alabama to facilitate the introductions, and Evans will provide transition assistance by telephone for as long as it's needed.

Capuchins socialize within a hierarchical structure, which means that a monkey in a home will assign everyone (including household pets) a relative ranking. The monkey will give complete trust and respect to the individual at the top of the hierarchy. As a result, a key element of a successful placement is teaching the monkey to put the recipient in the top spot.

“Many of our recipients worry about how they appear to other people because of their disability or health problems,” Evans says. “When a monkey comes in and places that recipient at the top of the hierarchy and takes to that person over anyone else, it can mean the world to the recipient.”

Helping Hands has placed 159 monkeys with recipients since 1979; some monkeys have been in the same homes for 20 years. The monkeys are bred in captivity or rescued from homes where they were being kept improperly as pets; the majority are brown-tufted capuchins, a species that is not endangered. The organization monitors the health and welfare of the 30 to 40 monkeys currently in placements and has developed resources to care for monkeys when they are too old or ill to work. Life expectancy for capuchins averages 25 years in the wild and 40 years or more in captivity.

In Alabama, Bradley Maze's relationship with his monkey gets stronger every day. He especially appreciates that Jerri never tires of simple, repetitive tasks that could feel like a burden for his parents or other human helpers. “I can have her help me around the house without having to bother someone else to do it for me,” he says.

Like most recipients, Maze values Jerri as much for her companionship as her practical assistance. “When I'm home alone she's always here keeping me company, and I don't feel so lonely,” he says.

At the end of the day, Evans says, that's what makes her work so rewarding. “My favorite part of this job is seeing years of both my efforts and also the monkey's efforts get put to use toward a good cause,” she says. “When I hear how well they are doing with the recipient, it's completely worth it.”