Is It Cruel to Have a Monkey Helper?

As service animals, capuchins change people’s lives—but they may suffer in the process.

Toby, a 10-year-old capuchin, with a trainer from Helping Hands (Jim Bourg / Reuters)

A small monkey sits on a white countertop in a Boston training facility. With dexterous hands, the monkey—a capuchin, native to the forest canopies of Central and South America and known for its intelligence and use of tools— pushes a soft cloth back and forth across a board.

“Beautiful!” says the monkey’s trainer, offering it a lick of the treat on her finger. In one fluid motion, the monkey laps it up then goes right back to work.

The trainer is teaching the monkey, step by step, to rub a human’s face. It’s one of many tasks that capuchins learn at Monkey College, the training center run by the non-profit Helping Hands. Over three to five years, Helping Hands instructs its primate pupils on how to care for humans who are paralyzed or otherwise limited in mobility. This particular monkey—who’s featured in a video clip called “Itch” on Helping Hands’ website—will learn how to move from rubbing the board to rubbing its trainer’s arm with the cloth, then to rubbing a targeted dot on the trainer’s face whenever she wrinkles her nose. Eventually, the monkey will know to scratch anyone’s face with a cloth at the same signal.

Helping Hands is the only organization in the United States that trains monkey helpers. Their capuchins learn how to switch lights on and off, turn the pages of a book, offer a drink, play a DVD or CD, even shift a person’s limbs. Currently, 145 capuchins are involved in some stage of the program, according to Helping Hands. Thirty-five live with disabled people in 13 states, and 50 are undergoing training in Boston.

In the gentle nature of their training and work duties, the lives of helper monkeys appear to be appreciably better than those of monkeys asked to perform service for humans in other contexts. As Desmond Morris writes in Monkey, a history of our interactions with the creatures, for instance, 32 monkeys were launched into space on U.S., Russian, or French rockets between 1948 and 1997; at least a third of them died. On Thailand’s Ko Samui island, hundreds of pig-tail macaque monkeys are trained to perform difficult and risky maneuvers picking coconuts from the tops of palm trees. And in U.S. biomedical laboratories, monkeys may face medical procedures that involve close confinement, pain, and stress.

Yet turning monkeys into helpers for the disabled remains a controversial practice. Major media coverage of Helping Hands tends to ignore a perennial question in humans’ longstanding relationship with monkeys: Is helping humans good for the monkeys, too?

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For decades now, scientists in the U.S. and the U.K. have spoken out about the harms of owning monkeys as pets. Monkeys begin life intensely bonded with their mothers. Almost all species have evolved to roam in forest canopies or across savannas in extended families or large groups, in which dominance hierarchies often play a central role. Taking in a monkey as a pet disrupts the mother-offspring bond, and makes it extremely difficult to meet an adult monkey’s needs for movement, exploration, and interaction with its species. Additionally, monkeys may bite, and the risk of injury or disease transfer (including of the Herpes B virus) across species lines to their human owners is a serious one.

But the challenge of dealing with the Helping Hands monkeys is that they aren’t pets. While it’s true that the American Veterinary Medical Association weighs the advisability of keeping monkeys as service animals right alongside keeping monkeys as pets, and comes out against both, in part because of disease risk, it seems fairer to consider monkey helpers in a category all their own.

Helping Hands was established in the 1970s and registered as a non-profit organization in 1983. Through 1999, the organization bred its own monkeys on-site; in those early years, after the infants were taken from their mothers at the age of just six to 10 weeks, their canine teeth and front teeth were removed to ensure that people who worked or lived with them would be protected from bites. Because of these practices, Helping Hands faced significant criticism from animal-welfare organizations.

Angela Lett, Director of Development and Communication at Helping Hands, told me by email that surgical extraction of the monkeys’ teeth no longer happens, and notes that infant monkeys are acquired now from a breeding colony in Massachusetts. She stresses that praise, affection, and small rewards are used to train the capuchins—positive reinforcement only, as seen in the “Itch” training protocol. And the organization doesn’t allow the monkeys to accompany disabled individuals in public settings, a policy that is designed to reduce bites and risk of disease.

Testimonials on the organization’s website from people who live with service monkeys convey their happiness with the increased independence, and also with the affection they share with their capuchin housemates. A seven-minute film powerfully shows a monkey named Sophie transform the daily life of Judith Zappia, who suffered from progressive multiple sclerosis before her death, in 2013. Recalling her friends’ skepticism about the program, Zappia says the real question is “How have I lived so long without a monkey?”

Nonetheless, it’s clear from Lett’s statement that Helping Hands anticipates criticism. “Helping Hands acknowledges that some people do not agree with animals being in service to human beings, and we respect their opinions,” she writes. “We do hope that those who do not agree with animals in service can acknowledge the day-to-day challenges our clients face and that they have made a very personal choice to seek the independence and life-changing companionship that their service monkeys provide.”

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Indeed, despite its benefits, there’s compelling evidence that this “personal choice” does pose some dangers for helper monkeys that echo those faced by primates kept as pets. Disruption of the monkeys’ natural social bonds is a major concern for Katherine MacKinnon, an anthropologist and capuchin expert at Saint Louis University. Over email, MacKinnon agreed that the Helping Hands capuchins do enrich the lives of some people, but went on to say that the animals are being asked to live in “a human-constructed reality that is anathema to how they have evolved and how they deal socially with their surroundings and own species.”

We shouldn’t be fooled, MacKinnon says, by the fact that the people and the monkeys may seem to get along just fine. In human-capuchin interactions, “often social signals are misinterpreted (on both sides, human and capuchin),” she writes, “which can and has resulted in unfortunate scenarios where the monkeys perceive a threat or dominance challenge from another family member, friend, neighbor, pet ... and they respond by biting, and feeling threatened, anxious, [or] scared.”

MacKinnon acknowledges that the monkeys’ opposable thumbs and clever brains make them tempting candidates as service animals, but concludes that ethically, we would be better off sticking with the use of domesticated animals like dogs for helpers. Of course, dogs cannot manipulate objects with their hands the way that the capuchins do. But dogs have been evolving to thrive in one-to-one relationships with humans in ways that monkeys have not.

Years ago, I studied baboon infants in Kenya. Aiming to figure out how they learn which foods to eat among the hundreds of options the savanna offers them, I spent more than a thousand hours observing baboon inter-generational relationships—how the youngsters made best use of their elders’ extensive foraging knowledge. The experience leads me to give great weight to MacKinnon’s words. Day-to-day, the lives of wild monkeys—both baboons and capuchins—are profoundly bound up with the ever-changing dynamics of kin relationships, friendships, alliances, rivalries, and hostilities. These dynamics are negotiated through the monkeys’ close attunement to each other’s movements and behaviors. No amount of positive reinforcement from a human being, whether trainer at the Monkey College or disabled person in his or her home, can replace the intricacies of that natural social setting.

Taking the view from anthropology, then, monkeys who live in private homes are deprived monkeys. Helping Hands says that their monkeys spend eight to 12 years in “Socialization Homes” with foster families before beginning the three-to-five-year training period. The monkeys thus go from being with their mothers at the breeding colony, to living with people in a foster home, to being trained at the Monkey College, and then on to work in their placement homes. That sequence entails repeated breaking of key social relationships, which may be a significant stressor for primates.

And what happens when a monkey’s human companion dies? Given my study of animal mourning, I can say with some certainty that when a monkey’s “primary person” in the home dies, that monkey might well experience grief—and without other monkey family members around who would buffer the emotional sting.

Do I believe that the capuchin monkeys encounter kindness when they’re bred to be helpers in people’s homes? Yes, I do. But humans are exceptionally skilled at putting their needs first over other animals’. With these primate cousins of ours, we alter their lives with a firm eye on human benefits and a reluctance to consider the cost to the capuchins themselves. The greater kindness is to allow monkeys to live their lives as monkeys.