Nimble Monkeys Prove a Boon to Homebound Quadriplegics, Thanks to a Behavioral Psychologist

updated 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/07/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Twelve years ago Sue S., then 22, and two friends rented a van and set off across country, bound for San Francisco and adventure. They never made it. As they wove through serene Pennsylvania farmland, with Sue asleep in the passenger seat, the steering wheel came loose and the van hurtled off the road. Two hours later Sue woke up in a hospital in Altoona, Pa., unable to move her arms and legs. A badly damaged spinal cord had left her permanently paralyzed.

Like an estimated 85,000 other quadriplegics in the country, Sue is unable to attend to her most basic needs. After a court battle with the car rental company and more than five years of hospitalization, she was awarded a modest living allowance. With help from family and friends, Sue moved into an apartment on Manhattan's East Side—but still required around-the-clock care. Fortunately, she now has considerable assistance from an unlikely friend named Henry. Henry is a 15-year-old capuchin monkey trained to work for quadriplegics.

Since 1977 Henry and five other capuchins have assisted incapacitated humans, thanks to Dr. Mary Joan Willard, a 33-year-old psychologist at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the Bronx. Willard began her unusual project as a postdoctoral fellow in behavioral medicine at Tufts New England Medical Center in Boston and while working part-time for behaviorist B.F. Skinner. "It hit me we could use an animal to do things for quadriplegics," Willard recalls. "Monkeys are known for their marvelous dexterity, and primate centers told me that for what we wanted, the capuchin, the organ grinder's monkey, is the best. They're very bright and live well with humans." She started with four capuchins, all females: "Males pee on their feet, then rub them together and mark their territory," Willard explains. "We decided that was unsanitary." Rewarded with banana-flavored pellets and other fruit delicacies, the capuchins soon started responding to voice commands and following the directions of a laser beam, which a patient can point at something he or she wants. Within six months the monkeys could turn lights on and off, fetch food and drinks from a refrigerator and even painstakingly feed people.

In 1979 the first trained capuchin was placed with Robert Foster, a paralyzed 25-year-old Boston man. "Robert was alone 40 hours a week," Willard says. "He couldn't get a drink of water, and if a door blew closed, he couldn't open it. It struck me that he had nothing to lose." Some things went smoothly, some did not—notably housekeeping. "Monkeys will destroy a house out of curiosity," Willard discovered. "We learned to put white stickers on things we want them to leave alone." Using a harness attached to the monkey's waist, she also devised a series of shocks to punish unruly subjects. "Once the monkey has felt the wrath of the electrical reprimand," she says, "it's rarely necessary to go beyond a warning beep." The monkeys are trained to go to the bathroom only in their cages. For safety, they are detoothed at 3½ years, and while they sometimes go after a trainer, none has attacked a quadriplegic. Willard, who grew up in Pittsburgh, her economist husband, Bruce Perl-stein, and their 6-month-old daughter, Sarah, even share their apartment with any capuchin deemed worthy of a short leave from the lab during the six-month-long course.

But none of it has been easy. Willard's project was rejected by 38 funding organizations before getting $65,000 in grants from the Paralyzed Veterans of America and the National Science Foundation. Now she is seeking $1.2 million to set up a capuchin breeding colony in Florida. At least one backer seems to be betting she'll get it. "M.J.'s quite a remarkable person," says B.F. Skinner of his former assistant. "She's converted a wild animal, essentially, into a very civilized one."

Certainly Sue S., whose capuchin, Henry (short for Henrietta), has become company as well as a helper since she arrived last January, appreciates Willard's work. "Henry fills in the empty spots—she's extremely funny," Sue says. "She'll eat anything—ravioli, root beer floats. She even opens my junk mail and puts cassettes in the recorder. As I said to Dr. Willard, 'I'll bet when Henry was young she never thought she'd grow up to have people.' "

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