60 Minutes II: A Monkey Named Hellion
jm1338 at columbia.edu
Wed Jan 16 11:32:58 EST 2002
60 Minutes II: A Monkey Named Hellion
Capuchin Monkeys Help The Disabled
What Began As An Experiment Turned Into A Friendship
Jan. 9, 2002
(CBS) Robert Foster has been a quadriplegic for more than 25 years, the
result of a car crash that left both legs and both arms useless.
And his health problems didn't end there. In the last 20 years, he's
suffered seizures, multiple infections and two bouts of cancer, reports
Correspondent Morley Safer.
Through it all, Hellion has been at side, a constant helper and companion.
What makes that relationship so special is not just because it's between man
and an animal - in this case, a capuchin monkey trained to do some
remarkable tasks. It's because it's a relationship of necessity.
Safer first met Foster and Hellion in 1981, not long after Hellion came to
live with Foster as an experiment.
Foster used punishment and reward to modify Hellion's behavior, a practice
fairly standard then for circuses and shows. When Hellion did well, she was
rewarded with a pellet of monkey chow that Foster released though his chin
controls. When she misbehaved, she got a blip of sound through the battery
pack, and then a slight shock to her tail. It didn't take long before the
conditioning made the shock unnecessary.
Hellion started out in life as a lab monkey in a series of behavior
modification tests being conducted by a team at Tufts University.
Dr. Mary Joan Willard, a professor of psychology and member of the team
conducting the experiments, believed the experiments might eventually be of
use to handicapped people. She met Robert, thought he had just the right
personality, the patience to put up with a hellion like Hellion, and the
rest is history.
"It's not a problem teaching them tasks," Willard told Safer in 1981. "You
really can do that pretty rapidly, and we're standardizing things so that we
can, in the space of a few months, teach a dozen different tasks. The
problem is, can you control them and make them civilized? Can they live in
an apartment setting and be happy without destroying it? And I think we're
getting to the point where we can say yes to that also."
Modest grants from the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the National
Science Foundation soon enabled other monkeys to be trained for similar
assignments in a program called Helping Hands.
And what do the monkeys get out of it?
"Well, the things that make most people happy," says Willard. "Are you
physically active? Do you have good food? Are you physically healthy? Do you
have affection and love? Are you stimulated?"
Hellion has matured and slowed down in the last two decades, Foster says.
"She's been very good and happy throughout the years. Good company."
When Foster requires hospitalization, his first priority is making sure that
Hellion is cared for : "I mean, she's my child. I want her safe if I gotta
The person who helps make sure Hellion is safe, is Judi Zazula. An
occupational therapist, who 25 years ago heard about Helping Hands, she
offered her services and began training Hellion. Since then, she's trained
most of the monkeys that have passed through Helping Hands. She's now the
Today, Helping Hands has 70 monkeys in homes all over the United States. It
places 12 monkeys each year with the disabled. While the training is still
very simple - monkey see, monkey do. - any sort of aversive training,
electric shock or other punishment, is gone.
Gone, too, is the government funding. Once the experiment proved itself, the
funding stopped. Now Helping Hands exists on private donations. As for
getting the monkeys, it's much more organized than it was 20 years ago.
Helping Hands monkeys are bred in a colony at Southwick Zoo in the Boston
area. From there, potential candidates go directly to foster homes where
they spend the first six years of their lives, going through the familiar
process of just being a kid.
"One thing that we've learned is that when monkeys are raised in a home
environment as part of a human family, just like any child is, that this is
the only life that they've ever known, then this is the life that they're
comfortable in," says Zazula.
" We also know that monkeys have a life span of 30 to 40 years. So they have
a long childhood. And they need to be little monkeys when they're little
By the time new recruits reach Helping Hands for two years of schooling,
which now is done solely with affection, repetition and persistence, they're
twice the age Hellion was when she started.
"That's a big difference from Hellion's training and Hellion's history,"
says Zazula. "When Hellion was originally filmed for 60 Minutes, she was a
very young toddler. And a lot of her activity level and a lot of her
monkeyshines really were just a toddler being a little kid."
Hellion is 24 now, beginning to show the signs of old age. She's a little
slower on the uptake, a little cranky and, just like some people we know,
she's not crazy about change.
A few years ago, Foster got back a little bit of movement in his hand, and
it bothers Hellion.
"Most of the time, I'm stuck in the chair, and I'm not moving," he says,
"And all of a sudden, I'll be moving something. It startles her. She sees
everybody else walking in. They can move and there's no problem. But for me,
she's used to seeing me in the chair."
The affection between the two is obvious, and Zazula says she believes
Hellion has helped keep Foster alive.
"A number of times that Robert's been in the hospital and things really did
look darkest for him," she says, "I would bring Hellion in. And just in
curling up next to him in his bed, I knew that that was the thing that made
him feel needed and loved and - and feeling like somebody mattered to him
enough to come out of this."
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