Culture Dish

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The first service monkey, Jack the Signalman
I’ll be posting a few more follow ups to my recent NY Times Magazine article, Creature Comforts, today and tomorrow (earlier ones here and here). Then, I promise, I’ll post about something other than animals. But for now, the history of service monkeys:

The other day a reader pointed me to what must be the first documented service monkey, Jack the Signalman, a baboon that dates back to the 1800s. His story is pretty amazing (thanks, Carter!).

I didn’t have room in my article to include as much information as I’d hoped about the history of Helping Hands, the organization that trains capuchin monkeys to help quadriplegics. So here, below the jump, is some of the more interesting history, including links to early studies, and archival video footage (also: video of monkey waiters):

Helping Hands was started by MJ Willard, who started training assistance monkeys in the late 70s when she was a twenty-something year old behavioral science post-doc working with BF Skinner, who once famously trained pigeons to play ping pong.

Willard got her first monkeys from the Harvard School of Public Health, where they were slotted for flu research, then euthanasia. She named them Hellion and Crystal, and began what would be the first of what would become many studies into the use of monkeys as service animals. She rode her bicycle around Boston with the monkeys clinging to her body or sitting on her handle bars, to get them used to being in public. Everyone stared. Willard’s boyfriend made equipment for the monkeys — a stand for putting a sandwich in so a quadriplegic could eat it; a chin-operated treat dispenser so their owners could reward the monkeys. She used laser pointers and clicker training — a method that relies on positive reinforcement and treats rather than negative reinforcement for mistakes. Pointer on the refrigerator and the word “drink” meant get a bottle out of the refrigerator. Pointer on a box and the word “straw” meant put a straw in the bottle, climb up a wheelchair, and put the straw in a person’s mouth. Soon they were fetching phones and remote controls, putting meals in microwaves, changing cassettes in players, and retrieving the often-dropped mouth sticks quadriplegics use to dial phones, type, or turn pages of a book. They learned to vacuum the floor by turning on a Dust Buster and racing around rooms following the dot across the floor (hilarious to watch). In the early eighties, 60 minutes did a short documentary on Willard and Hellion, which is pretty incredible. The original documentary isn’t online, but CBS did this follow up , which has a few clips of the archival footage. If you’re inspired, I highly recommend tracking down the original 60 minutes show — it’s pretty amazing (and the disco soundtrack is great).

And now, the latest trend in monkeys working for humans … monkey waiters in restaurants:

I find that video amazing given the current panic in the US over whether to ban legitimate service monkeys like capuchins because of worries about disease risk. You’d never see a service monkey in the US walking around a restaurant touching people and their food. And the service monkeys here are far less likely than these guys above to carry any diseases. My bet is that these waiter monkeys were born wild, and since they’re macaque monkeys, that means they have an 80-90 percent chance of carrying herpes B, which is transmissible to humans and nearly always fatal. (Ethically speaking, I have issues with monkey waiters, but that’s another story.)

Comments

  1. #1 DNLee
    January 6, 2009

    These stories have been amazing and so interesting. I never wouldhave thought of monkeys as service animals, but it is a great idea, especially if it saves a research mokey from euthansia
    monkeys as waiters….I’m not so fond of.

    Anyway, I’ve given you an Uber Amazing Blog Award. Check out the deets:
    http://urban-science.blogspot.com/2009/01/uber-amazing-blog-award.html

    See you soon at the conference.

  2. #2 Danimal
    January 6, 2009

    Isn’t using monkeys (OK it was apes) as service animals what led directly to the events told in the Planet of the Apes series of books? I am just saying, you never know.

  3. #3 Ed Flinn
    January 6, 2009

    I know it’s just a typo and that spelling flames are sad but “caupchin monkeys” wants fixed.