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.