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Monkey see monkey do: at a unique college, education is serious monkey business.


Paul is getting ready for college. But he isn't your average university-bound student: He's not taking SATs or shopping for textbooks. He's just hanging out with his best friend and watching TV. What gives? Paul is a 15-year-old capuchin monkey (see Nuts & Bolts, p. 17). He's preparing to attend Monkey College in Boston, Massachusetts.

This one-of-a-kind college trains capuchin monkeys to become service animals that perform everyday tasks for people with severe disabilities, especially those left paralyzed after a spinal cord injury. Graduates of Monkey College are skilled at picking up dropped items, putting straws in drinks, and even placing CDs in a CD player. Helping Hands, the organization that runs Monkey College, has trained and placed 127 monkey helpers since 1979. So, what does it take to turn a monkey into a helper?



The capuchins destined for Monkey College are bred at nearby Southwick's Zoo. When a monkey is old enough, it is sent to live with a foster family for a while. This helps the capuchin socialize with humans and get used to the household noises and activities it will experience later as a service monkey.

After a few years of getting accustomed to family life, it's time for the monkeys to go to college. There, they learn by positive reinforcement-trainers reward them when they perform a task correctly. Lessons start in what's called the Cubicle, a plain room with few distractions. Megan Talbert, chief operating officer and director of placements at Monkey College, says, "The most important thing that is taught in this level is imitation--'monkey see, monkey do.'" Monkeys copy trainers' simple actions, such as putting donut-shape rings on a small post.


After three to six months, students advance to the B-room, where they learn more useful tasks, such as how to operate a television and pour a glass of juice. "The monkey is taught the different steps of a task, and then the steps are put together," explains Talbert. This stage of learning lasts one to two years.

Finally, the monkeys spend a year or two studying in the Apartment, which looks like an actual home. Here, Talbert says, "Monkeys sharpen their task skills but are also given a lot of free time in the room to explore and play--just as they would in a home environment." At this stage, the students also learn how to help people with severe disabilities; they practice scratching a person's itches and pushing up eyeglasses that may have slipped down tile nose.


Upon a monkey's graduation, the college's staff chooses a "human recipient" whose needs match each monkey's skills. Perhaps even more important, they make sure a monkey's personality will jibe with that of its recipient. "Just like humans, monkeys all have their own personalities. Some are quieter and more reserved--sonic are more active and outgoing," says Talbert.

The perfect match could mean giving a person with severe disabilities greater independence and a friend too. "We often hear from our recipients that their monkeys alleviate hours of loneliness and make them laugh every day," Talbert says.


Sometimes, a service monkey can change lives in unexpected ways. If a monkey's recipient dies or if the animal becomes ill, it returns to the college and may get placed with a foster family. That's what happened to a monkey helper named Kimba. Kimba's recipient fell ill and later died. At the same time, Kimba developed Type I diabetes, a condition in which the body doesn't produce enough of the sugar-regulating substance insulin.

Kimba went to live with the Kenney family of Abington, Massachusetts, which had applied with Helping Hands to be a foster family for a monkey. The organization placed Kimba with the Kenneys because one member of the family, Joe, also has Type I diabetes. Helping Hands thought the two could help each other out.

Joe, who was 13 years old at the time, gave Kimba daily insulin shots, checked the monkey's blood-sugar levels, and monitored his diet. By caring for Kimba, Joe saw the importance of managing his own diabetes. At the same time, Kimba also helped Joe overcome his discouragement at having to do things differently from kids who don't have diabetes. "Even though [Kimba] wasn't able to eat all the regular monkey foods, he was still enjoying his life," Joe says.

Kimba also enriched Joe's world by providing some unexpected humor. Since the monkey was trained to help people in need, "If you'd sneeze, he'd come over with a tissue and try to wipe your nose," Joe says. "If you were reading a book, he'd always come over and he'd turn the pages for you." Kimba didn't always get things quite right. Joe's mother loves tea; so Kimba would put a teabag in a cup, then pour in anything the color of tea. Sometimes, Morn got a cupful of soda or gravy!


It was a big blow for Joe when Kimba died two years ago from a brain infection called encephalitis. After the monkey's death, the Kenney family took in another foster monkey, Paul. According to Joe, who is now 17, "[Paul's] favorite thing to do is watch TV."

When it finally comes time to send Paul off to Monkey College, Joe is going to miss his buddy. But he knows that Paul has a bright future with Helping Hands, so that will make the separation easier. "I'll know he's going to a good place," Joe says. "He'll be doing an actual job that's really helping someone."

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To learn more about Monkey College and see a video of the primate pupils, go to:
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Title Annotation:LIFE LEARNING & BEHAVIOUR; training of monkey helpers
Author:Adams, Jacqueline
Publication:Science World
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 31, 2008
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Next Article:Other unusual helpers.

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