Exotic animals assist the disabled

Exotic animals assist the disabled

by Brittany Paris

Craig Cook's colleague had never visited California, so he wanted to show him a great time. The young engineers started the night with dinner and drinks, then cruised Orange County in Cook's new Camaro convertible. After hitting a few bars, Cook decided he was too sauced to be behind the wheel. But Cook says his passenger - itching to drive the high-performance car with the top down - pledged he was sober enough. "It turns out, he wasn't OK to drive," Cook says.

Flying down the freeway ramp, they took the cloverleaf turn too fast and careened off a cliff. The car plunged 50 feet and rolled, the full weight of the vehicle landing on Cook's head. The driver walked away unharmed. Cook, still conscious after the crash, knew instantly he wasn't as lucky. "I couldn't move," Cook says. "My whole body felt like it was on fire."

At the hospital, doctors gave the 29 year old a grim diagnosis. "They said if they didn't operate right away, I was going to die." His C5 neck vertebra had shattered into his spine, and the odds he'd regain any mobility were slim. "I just didn't get it. I wanted them to fix me so I could go waterskiing that weekend."

Reality set in two months later when his physical therapist set a LEGO block on a tray and told him to move it from one side to the other. It took Cook an hour and brought him to tears. "I realized I was in trouble," he says. "That one stupid decision was life altering."

The driver was arrested for driving under the influence and spent four months in jail. "It's sad," Cook says. "Two college graduates: one's a quadriplegic and the other's a convicted felon."

The accident not only cost the former college quarterback his physical freedom. He also lost his career, his two homes and his fiancé and her son, who Cook had treated as his own. "I thought 'what else can happen to me?' I was really depressed - I was in such a funk."

Friends urged Cook to get a dog to lift his spirits, but he's allergic. So, they persisted and stumbled across the perfect solution to perk up their once-spunky pal: a monkey.

Helping Hands, a national nonprofit based in Boston, trains capuchin monkeys that come from the group's own breeding colony at Southwick's Zoo in Mendon, Mass., to be companion aides for people with severe physical disabilities, such as Lou Gehrig's disease, muscular dystrophy and multiple sclerosis. The small monkeys, often associated with street performers, make great service animals because of their hand dexterity, immense intelligence and long lifespan - up to 40 years. The organization, which has placed 130 monkeys since 1979, provides monkeys and services at no charge to the recipient and relies solely on donations, foundation grants and corporate support. Altogether, each monkey placement costs $35,000.

Cook thought the idea was a hoot, so he applied. "We look for people who have an adventurous spirit and a sense of humor," says HH Chief Operating Officer Megan Talbert. "Craig has both."

Cook met his monkey Minnie, a five-pound primate with spiky hair, in 2004. They've been inseparable ever since. "I wasn't that attached at first," Cook says. "But, she's really grown on me. Minnie is like a daughter." Cook joined the HH board of directors after witnessing first-hand how the organization changes lives.

Minnie has helped Cook regain much of his independence. She fetches drinks from the fridge, fixes food in the microwave and helps him if he drops the phone, which is his lifeline. "Before, I had to wait until the mailman came by to lend a hand." Minnie even snagged Cook a date. His friends posted an online dating ad with the tag line: "Man in wheelchair and his monkey looking for Jane." Chelle Corr, a 44-year-old event planner, responded. They've been dating now for two years.

Cook and Minnie enjoy frequent outings together. He takes her on strolls around the neighborhood and to see Los Angeles Angels baseball games. When Cook's busy with his new job of trading stocks online, the mellow 26-year-old monkey enjoys sunning herself on the patio, curled up in a dog bed Cook bought for her. "It's great to have someone around all day," he says. "Minnie makes it easier to live like this."

Monkeys aren't the only unusual species creeping into the service industry, which has been dominated by seeing-eye dogs. Cats and ferrets, even pigs have been trained to alert their owners of impending seizures, asthma or diabetic attacks, according to Pat Gonser, founder of Pets and People: Companions in Therapy & Service. A registered nurse, Gonser started doing therapy work with her cat in the 1990s and helps others who want to train their own kittens.

A miniature horse named Panda helps Ann Edie of upstate New York get around. Edie was born with a genetic disorder that rendered her legally blind. For a large part of her life, she depended on a cane to get around safely, and in 1991 she received her first guide dog, Bailey, a chocolate Labrador.

When Bailey died suddenly in 2000, Edie was devastated. "It was quite a tumultuous period in my life," Edie says. "Service animals become such a large part of your identity." Edie tried two other guide dogs after Bailey, but both German shepherds failed at the task. One couldn't handle the stress of working full-time. The next dog had aggression issues.

Edie had heard stories about a handful of miniature horses trained as guides for the blind and figured that may be the best fit for her long-term needs, especially since they can live up to 50 years. She's loved horses ever since taking riding lessons as a child and owns three full-size horses, so she knew how well-suited they were for guide work. Size was the only issue.

Edie and her horse trainer, Alexandra Kurland, searched for a miniature horse of the appropriate size - preferably under 30 inches tall - and found Panda Bear at Grosshill Farm in Florida. "As horse people, it made sense to us that they could do the job," Kurland says.

For the first 18 months, Panda stayed with Kurland and learned the same tasks any guide dog learns. She mastered dozens of verbal commands and how to relieve herself on demand. "Horses are really quite brilliant," Kurland says. "I'm not going to teach them Shakespeare, but they're excellent problem solvers." Panda uses her 350-degree range of vision to navigate through complex obstacles like construction zones. Kurland says Panda's extremely calm disposition made training much easier. "She just knocked my socks off," she says. "Nothing scares or distracts her."

Panda guides Edie around town, visiting the library and post office nearly every day. "Panda loves going places and doing new things," Edie says. She's stayed in hotels and stands quietly by the table when Edie goes to restaurants. When the two are at home, Panda stretches out on the carpet at Edie's feet and loves playing fetch with her array of toys. At night, Panda sleeps in a shed next to Edie's deck.

Edie attracts a lot of attention when out in public with Panda. On their first trip to a home improvement store, Edie says they received the best service because six sales associates crowded around to sneak a peek of the unfamiliar sight. At restaurants, waiters fight over who gets to serve them. But just like a working dog, Talbert says people shouldn't pet a service animal without permission - no matter how cute the monkey or miniature horse. These animals are "on the job" and shouldn't be distracted from their duties. "Helper monkeys are service animals and should be treated as such," Talbert says.

The monkeys get their share of cuddles and belly rubs during the first five to 10 years of their lives while staying with volunteer foster families. Fostering can last up to seven years, during which the adolescent monkeys get socialized and learn how to interact with family pets and other common household things before moving on to their adult duties. Although some localities have restrictions against exotic pets, HH has foster families in more than 20 states. "People can contact our HH office [monkeyhelpers.org] if interested in fostering to see what their state law allows," Talbert says.

Brad and Susan Keyes of Boston have fostered HH monkeys for 15 years. Susan's since joined the board of directors. She says anyone interested in fostering needs to have the time and patience to deal with what's essentially a small child. But, the considerable commitment is all worthwhile. "It's fulfilling to know the love and attention you give to the monkey will make another person's life much better," Susan says. "It's very rewarding."

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