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Monkey’s business is lending a hand

Concord woman’s book recounts how a capuchin rescued her family

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By Cindy Cantrell
Globe Correspondent / December 5, 2010

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CONCORD — As Ellen Rogers filled her kitchen sink with hot, soapy water, she recalled how Kasey came into her family’s life nearly four years ago to assist her son.

A 2005 car accident left Ned Sullivan, then 22, paralyzed and with a brain injury. There was an adjustment period, his mother recalled, during which the entire family learned to cope with the medical equipment and remodeling needed to accommodate Sullivan’s power wheelchair, and Kasey’s constant presence.

Now they can’t imagine life without Kasey.

“Some days, I look around and wonder how all of this happened,’’ Rogers said as Kasey suddenly bounded up on the counter and sank chest-high in her bath water.

“Like the fact that there’s a monkey in my sink.’’

Rogers has written a book, “Kasey to the Rescue: The Remarkable Story of a Monkey and a Miracle,’’ about her family’s experience with the 5-pound, 25-year-old capuchin.

“When I say it was Kasey to the rescue, I’m not kidding. She rescued us from despair. Taking care of her gave us a mission, something we could work on as a family to help us move forward,’’ said Rogers, who gave up her career as a high-tech marketing executive in order to care full time for her son. “She’s made all the difference in our world. She simply amazes us each day.’’

Kasey is one of more than 40 capuchins placed with individuals in 37 states by Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled, according to the Allston-based nonprofit organization’s executive director, Megan Talbert.

The monkeys are provided free to individuals whose mobility has been severely compromised by injury or disease. Donations from individuals, corporations, and foundation grants cover the $38,000 cost of breeding, raising, training, and placing each service animal, she said. Kasey was born in Argentina, according to the website for Rogers’ book, but Helping Hands also has a closed colony at Southwick’s Zoo in Mendon; the young monkeys are raised by foster families, and then prepared for their career as helpers at a training center in Boston, its website says.

Hundreds of inquiries are received annually, Talbert said, but only eight to 10 new placements occur each year, due to the time and cost of training and the complexity of matching monkeys with human partners. The most important factors, she said, are personality, tolerance for other household members, and willingness of family members or a personal-care attendant to feed and bathe the monkey, wash its toys, and clean its cage.

Patience and a sense of humor go a long way, too.

“It’s not like a dog, where you pat his head and give him a treat and he’s your friend for life. It takes months to develop a relationship with a monkey,’’ Talbert said. “It’s been really nice to watch Kasey’s relationship with Ned develop, and years later see her so completely dedicated to him. It’s rewarding for all of us.’’

Aides help Sullivan get in and out of bed, shower, shave, dress, and eat, and transport him to physical therapy.

When Kasey came into his life, he lavished her with praise and sugar-free peanut butter as a reward for such tasks as turning lights on and off, flipping the pages of books and magazines, loading and playing CDs, scratching his face, and retrieving a bottle of water, unscrewing its cap, inserting a straw, and holding it up to his mouth. If his arm falls off the armrest of his wheelchair, Kasey repositions it.

From the beginning, it was Kasey’s dexterity that most impressed Sullivan, for whom assistance dogs hold no appeal.

“We already have two dogs,’’ he said, “and hearing about all the things monkeys can do got me excited.’’

However, he said, it’s her compassionate nature and comedic antics that take his mind off his frustration and pain.

As the family’s two dogs, Bailey and Guy, looked on from a corner of the kitchen during her recent bath, Kasey was ready to rinse off. She does not like having her face washed, so Rogers made the most of the single wipe with a facecloth that she is allowed.

After the soapy water was drained from the sink, Kasey repeatedly put her hand into the water flowing from the faucet and then withdrew it, signaling that the stream wasn’t hot enough. When she approved of the temperature, she clasped both hands in the flow, the sign for Rogers to activate the spray nozzle. With the suds rinsed away, Rogers gently squeezed the excess water from Kasey’s tail and dried her with a towel.

In addition to regular baths, Kasey enjoys a weekly manicure and pedicure. She eats seven times a day, including three meals of “monkey chow,’’ or dry nuggets softened with water, green beans, an apple slice, diced chicken with celery, and a single teaspoon of hummus before bed. For snacks, she prefers bits of cucumber or walnuts.

People with monkey helpers are asked to pay for an annual visit with a veterinarian and to purchase a $30 bag of food every six to eight weeks, but those costs are assumed by Helping Hands if necessary. Each monkey is supported by a placement specialist and provided with lifelong medical care.

Capuchins can reach 40 years old; if one outlives its human companion, the monkey returns to Helping Hands for retraining and a new placement. Retired monkeys live out their days in volunteer foster homes.

Rogers said Kasey has the “biggest sweet tooth known to man’’ and is just as finicky as any human. If her monkey chow is too hard or too soft, she’ll feed it to the dogs. In the family hierarchy, Kasey considers herself above Rogers’ four other children: Megan Holsinger, 30, of Carlisle; Jake Kokos, 23, of Orlando, Fla.; Maddie Kokos, 19, a college freshman in New York; and Anna Kokos, 17, a senior at Concord-Carlisle Regional High School.

The meaning of “monkey see, monkey do’’ quickly becomes obvious to visitors. After watching a guest take notes, Kasey gripped a pencil and began writing on her own pad of paper. But when the television remote control accidentally slipped from Sullivan’s hand, she instantly retrieved it — along with her brush, which she gave to Sullivan so he would groom her. He obliged without hesitation.

“At first, I couldn’t do much with my hands. But she knew what to do,’’ said Sullivan.

He also credits his mother with keeping him positive and motivated during his physical therapy, which has enabled him to regain some movement in both arms. Today, he can type and text, although he continues to suffer from nerve pain and double — sometimes triple — vision.

When people meet Kasey for the first time, Rogers said, they inevitably want to see her perform tasks. They are amazed to learn, for example, that she understands Sullivan is working to regain his strength, and holds objects just far enough away that he has to reach for them.

“Kasey is smart. She knows when Ned can do something himself, and she makes him do it,’’ Rogers said. “But the most important thing she does for Ned is fill the void. Here he was, this athletic college kid, and now his friends are out West or living their own lives. Ned is never alone, but it’s Kasey who reaches him at a level that none of the rest of us can.’’

Kasey is tethered when she is in the nonmonkey-proofed areas of the home, but she often has free rein in Sullivan’s room, not to mention her bedroom-within-his-bedroom, an enclosure that is 6 feet tall, 3 feet wide, and 3 feet deep.

If she needs a break from the household commotion, she has been known to retreat inside her enclosure and shut the door behind her. There she keeps her toys, zippered purse, and her most treasured possession: a compact mirror that Sullivan purchased for her at CVS. When she goes to sleep, she pulls a pink or blue fleece blanket — both decorated with monkeys — up to her neck like her human housemates.

“What you see now is a bond, a big-time bond that will only get tighter. She’s my copilot, my wing man, and she knows it,’’ Sullivan said as Kasey cuddled on his lap and chewed contentedly on a walnut. “Without her, I probably wouldn’t be laughing as much and wouldn’t have as great of an attitude, which would translate into me not working as hard and being able to do everything I’m able to do today.

“She’s just one more thing that helps keep me healthy.’’

For more information about Helping Hands, call 617-787- 4419, e-mail mail@monkeyhelpers.org, or visit www.monkeyhelpers.org. For details on Ellen Rogers’ book, visit www.kaseytotherescue.com.