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Monkeys lend a 'Helping Hand'

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Two little hands changed Craig Cook's life.

When he was paralyzed after an accident in 1996, a series of other personal losses ensued. He lost his job as a plastics design engineer, a vacation home in Arizona, and then had to sell his two-story house because it no longer met his needs. Mr. Cook, a former high school athlete, believed he would walk again, but three years later he was still wheelchair bound. That's when his fiancée left him, taking her 4-year-old son, whom he'd thought of as his own.

Cook turned to his friends and parents for support. But sometimes, that wasn't enough. Then in 2001 a friend told him about Helping Hands, a "monkey college" in Boston that trains Capuchin monkeys to assist quadriplegics. "A monkey?" he thought. "Cool." And he applied.

Though not well known, Helping Hands has placed 104 Capuchins since Judi Zazula, an occupational therapist and rehabilitation engineer, started training them 26 years ago. Her goal was to provide quadriplegics with assistance, companionship, and some sense of freedom.

For Cook, who lives alone in La Habra, in southern California, the arrival of "Minnie" 18 months ago meant he no longer had to worry about losing his lifeline - his portable phone. Before, if it slipped off his lap, he'd have to wait for the mailman or a neighbor to come along. That was frustrating, he says, recalling the time he dropped his cellphone outside his front door. By the time a friend arrived, the phone was stolen.

Now, if it falls, he points and says, "Minnie, fetch."

The monkey also helps him remove frozen dinners from the freezer and put them in the microwave. This allows Cook, who can move his arms but not his hands, to make dinner by himself, rather than wait for his nighttime caregiver. (Another caregiver assists in the morning.)

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