LA HABRA, CALIF. — Two little hands changed Craig Cook's life.
When he was paralyzed after an accident in 1996, a series of other personal losses ensued. He lost his job as a plastics design engineer, a vacation home in Arizona, and then had to sell his two-story house because it no longer met his needs. Mr. Cook, a former high school athlete, believed he would walk again, but three years later he was still wheelchair bound. That's when his fiancée left him, taking her 4-year-old son, whom he'd thought of as his own.
Cook turned to his friends and parents for support. But sometimes, that wasn't enough. Then in 2001 a friend told him about Helping Hands, a "monkey college" in Boston that trains Capuchin monkeys to assist quadriplegics. "A monkey?" he thought. "Cool." And he applied.
Though not well known, Helping Hands has placed 104 Capuchins since Judi Zazula, an occupational therapist and rehabilitation engineer, started training them 26 years ago. Her goal was to provide quadriplegics with assistance, companionship, and some sense of freedom.
For Cook, who lives alone in La Habra, in southern California, the arrival of "Minnie" 18 months ago meant he no longer had to worry about losing his lifeline - his portable phone. Before, if it slipped off his lap, he'd have to wait for the mailman or a neighbor to come along. That was frustrating, he says, recalling the time he dropped his cellphone outside his front door. By the time a friend arrived, the phone was stolen.
Now, if it falls, he points and says, "Minnie, fetch."
The monkey also helps him remove frozen dinners from the freezer and put them in the microwave. This allows Cook, who can move his arms but not his hands, to make dinner by himself, rather than wait for his nighttime caregiver. (Another caregiver assists in the morning.)
Minnie's most frequent job is that of companion. And for a small monkey - she weighs 5 pounds, while most weigh 8 - she has a big presence, happily chirping as she sits on his shoulder, running her hands through his hair.
'I've never felt this kind of bond," Cook says, looking at Minnie, who sits with him when he's in the backyard sunning or working at the computer, day-trading. (He earned enough money this way to remodel his one-story townhouse.) Her picture, displayed in the kitchen, sits in a frame that reads "Daddy's little princess."
Cook laughs, saying the frame was a gift from Helping Hands. Yet for most recipients, the primates are priceless. One bedridden man used to leave his room just twice a year - on Christmas Day and to visit the doctor. "His monkey dissolved the walls and gave him a bigger experience," Ms. Zazula says.
For every pair of monkey hands, there are several pairs of human hands working in the background.
Foster parents raise the monkeys once they leave the breeding colony in Mendon, Mass. When an animal's attention span and activity level are appropriate, it moves to the "college" and spends two years learning to perform various tasks.
There, each monkey has a designated teacher but also interacts with other staff members. Of the 10 full-time employees at the facility, eight work with the animals.
In their first classrooms, which are very plain, the primates are introduced to key words and tasks, such as fetching an item or turning on a light switch. They also learn to follow a laser pointer, which tells them which objects to manipulate. Correct responses are rewarded with the ring of a bell, praise, and a taste of juice or cream cheese.
As the monkeys progress, they move to a second classroom, which has cabinets, a manual wheelchair, and a refrigerator-size cage, like the one that will eventually serve as their bedroom and bathroom.
A third classroom looks like a furnished apartment. Here the monkeys master such skills as changing a CD, turning the pages of a book, pouring a water bottle, and scratching an itch. They also "go through driver's ed," laughs Zazula, meaning they learn to ride on an electric wheelchair.
Formal training sessions last 30 to 60 minutes per day, though the monkeys are out and about during much of the day, practicing what they've learned.
"We teach them the most they can learn easily and naturally," says Zazula, "and then we place them with someone who needs what they know. Everything is based on positive reinforcement."
The cost of training is about $30,500 per monkey, which is paid for by donations. There are 35 "students" at Helping Hands now.
When a monkey is ready to move to its new home, it's accompanied by a placement trainer. The trainer ensures a smooth transition for animal and human.
"Monkeys have a strong need for hierarchy," Zazula says. They bond with one person, to whom they look for companionship, care, and affection. It takes about a week for that role to transfer from the staff member to the person in need. Once that happens, the life changes begin.
Back in California, Cook's life has opened up in unexpected ways. Articulate and energetic, he now serves on the Helping Hands board of directors, which means he takes part in teleconferences and flies to Boston once a year.
And this summer, he and Minnie did something new: They went to the beach. (A visitor did the driving.) As the two moved along the sidewalk in his wheelchair, passersby stopped and stared. "Hey, is that a monkey?"
Repeatedly, Cook smiled and answered, clearly enjoying his role as unofficial ambassador.
Not every quadriplegic can be so active. But as Cook and Minnie rolled along, they were the perfect example of how a small monkey can open up a person's world.