Connecticut College Magazine · Fall 2012


Jennifer Evans '06 trains Dillon, a capuchin monkey, how to be an assistant and companion to individuals with disabilities. Photo courtesy of Helping Hands.

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Animal Helpers

Animal Helpers
Jerri, a capuchin monkey, provides companionship as well as helping hands to Bradley Maze, 24, who was paralyzed five years ago in a diving accident.

For these alumni, working with dogs, horses or monkeys to help and heal humans is more than just a job. It's a passion.

by Bailey Bennett '14

In 1916, a German scientist established one of the first schools to train dogs to guide returning soldiers blinded by mustard gas in the trenches of World War I. Dorothy Harrison Eustis, a wealthy American living in Switzerland, wrote a story about the school in the Saturday Evening Post in 1927 and subsequently helped to found the first school for “seeing-eye” dogs in this country.

From this relatively recent beginning, scores of programs and organizations now train and provide canine assistants to individuals with disabilities. Signal dogs assist the deaf. Mobility dogs help individuals who are confined to wheelchairs. Service dogs now include canines that sense the onset of seizures and others that can monitor a diabetic's glucose level and fetch a snack when it dips too low.

While dogs remain by far the most common animal helpers, miniature horses, monkeys, cats, birds and even pot-bellied pigs are all being used to assist individuals with physical, cognitive and psychological disabilities.
The use of assistance animals “is absolutely on the rise,” says Gennifer Furst '97, associate professor of sociology at William Paterson University of New Jersey and an expert on the use of animal programs in prisons (see book review in this issue's Ink story). “We are seeing it expand to different areas of social services. There is increased recognition of the role that non-humans play in a human's life.”

Beyond service animals — which are individually trained to assist with specific tasks — is a menagerie of therapy animals that calm, comfort or otherwise assist patients and clients in therapeutic settings such as a psychologist's office, nursing home, hospital or school. Therapy animals also include those used in a therapeutic treatment, such as horses and, more controversially, dolphins.

One reason for the increasing popularity of animal helpers is the 1990 Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), which, in affirming the civil rights of the disabled, mandated unprecedented public access for service animals. The U.S. Department of Transportation went a step further, requiring airlines to provide access to animals that give “emotional support” to travelers with mental disabilities, a broader category than the ADA definition of service animal.

The trend is also being fueled by increased awareness and diagnosis of “invisible” disabilities, such as autism spectrum disorders and, among returning military veterans, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder. In many cases, people with these disorders have benefited from interacting with service and therapy animals.

In this environment, it's no wonder that training and working with assistance animals is an increasingly popular career choice. In the following pages, Bailey Bennett '14, an English and film studies major, looks at the working lives of four graduates who are finding personal and professional satisfaction helping animals help people. — Patricia M. Carey, Editor


Jennifer Evans '06 sits cross-legged on a linoleum floor with a 25-year-old capuchin monkey named Dillon and a set of bright-colored stacking rings. Nearby is a plastic cup of peanut butter and a shiny concierge bell.

Dillon, wearing a diaper, paces back and forth, sometimes climbing into Evans's lap or perching on her shoulder. Evans shines the beam of a laser pointer on a plastic ring. Dillon grabs it and slides it onto the toy's conical base. Evans dings the bell and gives the monkey a lick of peanut butter from her finger.

“Good girl,” Evans says. “Nice work, Dillon.”

Praise, peanut butter and endless repetition are all in a day's work for Evans, one of five placement trainers at Helping Hands, an Allston, Mass., nonprofit that trains service monkeys as live-in assistants for individuals with spinal cord injuries and other serious neurological disabilities.

Growing up in Farmington, Conn., Evans was sure she wanted to be a veterinarian. At Connecticut College, she majored in biology with a focus on pre-veterinary medicine, volunteered at the Mystic Aquarium and did her College-funded internship at a veterinary clinic in England. After experiencing the pace and pressure of a veterinary practice, however, she realized that she still wanted to work with animals — just not as their doctor.

After graduation, Evans spent two years as a teaching assistant in Boston. Then she saw a television news report about Helping Hands. She signed on as a volunteer; several months later, she was hired as a trainer.

Evans works with 10 monkeys and is responsible for their care and training, from potty training to cage cleaning to weekly baths. The job is hard, messy and sometimes tedious, but Evans loves it. Working with monkeys, she says, is “something you never get tired of.”

Evans teaches each monkey to perform tasks that may be difficult or impossible for a disabled individual, including picking up dropped objects, turning on lights, fetching food from the refrigerator and loading a DVD player.

The natural traits and intelligence of capuchins make them uniquely suited to assist humans, says Christopher Krupenye '11, a doctoral student researching primate cognition at Duke University. In their native South American habitat, they are active foragers, “so they spend a lot of time manipulating objects and are quite good at solving physical puzzles to acquire food,” he says. They also are highly social and build strong bonds with humans.

Each Helping Hands monkey is trained for three to four years. In between one-on-one training sessions, monkeys play with their trainers or socialize with other trainers and monkeys. Play includes enrichment activities such as figuring out how to extricate treats from complex containers or climbing on a room-sized jungle gym.

The initial training focuses on basic skills and task completion in a small, bare room with few distractions. In the second stage, additional household objects are introduced, including a microwave and DVD player. Also at this stage, Evans typically will begin potty training and introduce an electric wheelchair.

“We train them using positive reinforcement, meaning we only acknowledge tasks done correctly — by ringing a bell, along with verbal praise and a treat,” Evans says. “The monkeys can learn hundreds of vocab words, but we train them with about 30 basic command words and use a laser pointer to help identify objects for them to manipulate.”

Training helps monkeys to control their natural curiosity and impulsiveness. For example, like small children, monkeys love to flip light switches off and on. With the command word “sun,” they learn to press the switch — just once.

The final training takes place in a fully furnished space known as “the Apartment.” Here, Evans helps each monkey become accustomed to furniture, windows and other features of a typical home. The monkey learns that some objects can be manipulated or retrieved, while others should be left where they are. Evans also teaches the monkey how to keep a wheelchair user company by perching on the back of her chair or cuddling in her lap.

The hardest part of the job is when a monkey is finally ready for placement in a recipient's home. “They really become almost like my own children,” she says. “Monkeys have every range of emotion that a person has, which makes for a very strong bond and understanding of each other.”

In April, one of Evans's trainees, 19-year-old Jerri, was placed with Bradley Maze, 24, who was paralyzed in a diving accident five years ago. A Helping Hands trainer spent a week at Maze's home in Alabama to facilitate the introductions, and Evans will provide transition assistance by telephone for as long as it's needed.

Capuchins socialize within a hierarchical structure, which means that a monkey in a home will assign everyone (including household pets) a relative ranking. The monkey will give complete trust and respect to the individual at the top of the hierarchy. As a result, a key element of a successful placement is teaching the monkey to put the recipient in the top spot.

“Many of our recipients worry about how they appear to other people because of their disability or health problems,” Evans says. “When a monkey comes in and places that recipient at the top of the hierarchy and takes to that person over anyone else, it can mean the world to the recipient.”

Helping Hands has placed 159 monkeys with recipients since 1979; some monkeys have been in the same homes for 20 years. The monkeys are bred in captivity or rescued from homes where they were being kept improperly as pets; the majority are brown-tufted capuchins, a species that is not endangered. The organization monitors the health and welfare of the 30 to 40 monkeys currently in placements and has developed resources to care for monkeys when they are too old or ill to work. Life expectancy for capuchins averages 25 years in the wild and 40 years or more in captivity.

In Alabama, Bradley Maze's relationship with his monkey gets stronger every day. He especially appreciates that Jerri never tires of simple, repetitive tasks that could feel like a burden for his parents or other human helpers. “I can have her help me around the house without having to bother someone else to do it for me,” he says.

Like most recipients, Maze values Jerri as much for her companionship as her practical assistance. “When I'm home alone she's always here keeping me company, and I don't feel so lonely,” he says.

At the end of the day, Evans says, that's what makes her work so rewarding. “My favorite part of this job is seeing years of both my efforts and also the monkey's efforts get put to use toward a good cause,” she says. “When I hear how well they are doing with the recipient, it's completely worth it.”


Robert Porter '79, executive director and CEO of Paws for Purple Hearts, will never forget his job interview. Instead of a receptionist, a large golden retriever welcomed him at the door.

Throughout the building, dogs outnumbered people three to one. His interviewer was Bonnie Bergin, a dog-training expert and the founder of Bergin University for Canine Studies, a small college in Santa Rosa, Calif., that strives to “advance the human-canine partnership through research and education.”

After hours of questions, Bergin issued an invitation: Would Porter like to visit the puppy petting area? A few minutes later, Porter was sitting on the floor of a playpen in a “scrum” of 3-month-old golden retrievers. As the puppies climbed all over him, “I knew I had found a home with this organization,” Porter says.

For Porter, the organization's mission was even more appealing than the puppies. Based on the principle of “veterans helping veterans,” Paws for Purple Hearts teaches military veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to train service dogs for placement with disabled veterans and active-duty military.

Working with golden retrievers and Labrador retrievers, which are bred for high intelligence and calm dispositions, the patient-trainers teach the dogs more than 90 commands. The dogs learn to pull a wheelchair, work light switches, open and close doors and cabinets, and retrieve items from the fridge. And, while the dogs are learning these skills, their handlers are learning how to cope with their disorder and reintegrate into society.

For example, the dogs can alleviate nightmares and sleeplessness, common symptoms of PTSD. A veteran who wakes up with flashbacks “sees that the dog isn't upset, so that means it must be a dream, and they can go back to sleep,” Porter says.

The dogs also help the patient-trainers feel secure and ready to face society again. Just having to go out and walk the dog can break down a veteran's sense of isolation “because everybody wants to meet the puppy,” Porter says.

In March, Paws for Purple Hearts delivered a black lab named Yoko to Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Richard J. Simonsen Jr., now the senior enlisted leader for Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling in Washington, D.C. A veteran of deployments in Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Simonsen's military honors include a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart. He suffers from mild traumatic brain injury, PTSD and some chronic pain as a result of injuries sustained in combat in Afghanistan.

When pain flares up in Simonsen's hip or back, Yoko can pick things up for him and even help him take off his socks. And her quiet companionship helps him cope with the tumult of city life, including taking the subway. “Yoko has really been a transformational aspect to my medical care program,” he says. “The effects were almost immediate. She is a resiliency tool of the first order.”

Paws for Purple Hearts was established in 2008 as a research program of Bergin University. After a successful pilot at the Palo Alto/Menlo Park Veterans Administration Medical Center in California, additional pilots were launched at three military facilities in Virginia and Maryland. At that point, Bonnie Bergin decided the program was ready to be launched as an independent organization, and she hired Porter to take it to the next level.

For Porter, a government major at Connecticut College, it was an opportunity to try on a new career after more than three decades working in and around government. He had served as a staffer for the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs; vice president of an international consulting firm led by former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen; and senior government relations adviser at Witt Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in emergency preparedness.

Bergin University provides administrative support and dog instructors; otherwise, D.C.-based Porter is pretty much a one-man show, developing online resources, doing media interviews, shepherding the organization's pending application for tax-exempt status, responding to requests for service dogs, searching for funding sources, and working his Rolodex for universities, veterans organizations and other nonprofits to become program partners.

Shortly after Porter signed on, the U.S. Army decided to bring the three D.C.-area programs in-house and hired away Porter's training staff as government contractors. Despite this setback, Porter is optimistic about his ability to expand the flagship California program to at least two more locations by the end of 2013. In the past year, Paws for Purple Hearts has placed four service dogs, two with combat veterans and two with active-duty military personnel. A successful placement “makes everything you do seem right,” Porter says.

One of his biggest challenges is the lack of hard data “proving” that participation in service-dog training activities is an effective therapy for PTSD. While the anecdotal evidence is compelling, physicians and mental health professionals are accustomed to designing therapies based on peer-reviewed clinical studies, especially for a medical condition as complex and serious as PTSD.

Another challenge is fundraising. Training a service dog costs at least $15,000 and takes 18 to 24 months. And neither Bergin nor Porter is willing to launch a training program without full funding to complete the program and meet the medical needs of the participants.

Porter and his wife, Cynthia Power, have served as foster parents to dogs in training, and he recently completed Bergin University's “boot camp” for service dog recipients, which allows him to act as a dog handler at conferences or fundraising events.

Clearly, Porter enjoys interacting with the dogs. But even more so, he's in it for the humans. “To see the face of a wounded warrior light up when they first receive their service dog or the expression of a trainer who has trained one of our dogs for their comrades-in-arms — it just doesn't get any better than that,” he says.


On a sunny summer day, the stable at High Hopes Therapeutic Riding in Old Lyme, Conn., is warm and inviting, with an earthy scent of grain. As Laura Brown Moya '07 walks through with a visitor, horses poke their massive heads out of stalls, shaking their manes or whinnying to get her attention. Moya pauses to pet the long nose of Petra, a light brown Norwegian Fjord mare.

“She's one of our most reliable horses,” she says. “She's always so gentle and patient with everyone she meets. The kids really love her.”

An avid horseback rider since the age of 4, Moya always loved working with animals. As a psychology major at Connecticut College, she was interested in human behavior. But it wasn't until she discovered High Hopes, through a College-funded internship, that she realized she could combine both interests into a career helping horses help people.

Moya spent the summer after her junior year interning at the center, which offers horse-related activities for children and adults with physical, emotional and development disabilities. She worked alongside teaching staff and took the first steps toward becoming certified as a therapeutic riding instructor. Today, she is the organization's special programs manager and an advanced certified instructor.

Experts distinguish between therapeutic riding, which focuses on teaching horsemanship and riding skills, and hippotherapy, in which the movement of the horse is used in physical, occupational or speech therapy. In practice, however, therapeutic riding has broad benefits beyond learning to ride, such as improving participants' balance, muscle tone and overall health, as well as social skills, mood and confidence.

Lucy Helvenston Caskey '94 is a certified instructor at Circle of Hope Therapeutic Riding in Barnesville, Md., a small program with 55 participants, including many children with autism spectrum disorders. “Many students who come to us are very unfocused, but once they are on the horse, they are a completely different person,” says Caskey, who majored in biology. “They quiet down and start making eye contact with the people around them.”

Interacting with horses develops the children's communications skills and spatial awareness as well as their understanding of social norms. For example, horses don't like when people stand uncomfortably close, thus teaching the students how to maintain appropriate distance from animals and people alike.

Autistic children, Caskey says, are looking for stimulation, so they often want a horse that moves around a lot. “I really try to make the lessons fun for them,” Caskey says. “They get therapy all week long at hospitals and in school, so I don't want riding to feel like work.”

At High Hopes, a growing number of program participants are military veterans with combat-related physical disabilities, traumatic brain injuries or post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For those who aren't ready or able to mount a horse, High Hopes offers carriage driving and equine-facilitated learning in which participants learn how to feed, groom and care for horses.

Symptoms of PTSD may include depression, anxiety, isolation, difficulty sleeping, and feelings of stress and anger. Equine-facilitated learning can reduce these symptoms as participants work with horses hand-picked for good behavior and calm dispositions. The goal, Moya says, is to get participants to realize, “If I can take care of a 1,200-pound animal, I can take care of myself.”

Moya adds that, for people with PTSD, even leaving their houses may be difficult, but they find a way “because they know their horse is waiting for them.” Horses also mirror humans' moods, motivating the participants to bring a positive attitude and higher energy level.

High Hopes is one of the largest therapeutic riding centers in the U.S., with 25 horses; 230 program participants each week; 600 volunteers (including three to five Connecticut College students each semester); and 120 acres of postcard-pretty pastures, woods and riding trails. In addition to teaching, Moya's administrative responsibilities include managing the center's database, summer camps, field trips and outreach, plus training and education programs that prepare students and interns to become therapeutic riding instructors.

It's a complex organization, and every day Moya juggles many different tasks. Her favorite part of the job is seeing how much a horse can do for a human. A horse will never judge someone for having a disability, but instead will help him or her overcome it.

“The horse is a wonderful gift to us,” she says. “To be able to provide a form of physical therapy while the participant is just having a great time, learning riding skills and getting significant benefit out of the activity, is a huge win-win.”,

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