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Israeli Pilot Project : Monkeys Train to Aid Disabled War Veterans

March 09, 1986|ARTHUR MAX | Associated Press

TEL AVIV — Iza breaks dishes, nips jellyrolls and sleeps with a stuffed bunny--all part of growing up. Her mission, which she is learning without realizing it, is to become the hands of a quadriplegic war veteran.

The 18-month-old capuchin monkey, the kind once favored by organ grinders, is involved in a pilot training project by the Israeli Defense Ministry intended to provide help for disabled people who cannot help themselves.

Surin Hershko, whom Iza will serve, visits her "foster home" now and then so she will get used to him. Sometimes, in a quiet moment, she curls her tiny body around the neck of the former commando, who was crippled in the 1976 Entebbe rescue raid.

Carmella Burke, the mother of the house, has seven children in addition to the shaggy, cat-sized imp with the round face, huge eyes and unquenchable, meddlesome curiosity.

'Nothing Out of Reach'

She says that raising Iza, who was born in Argentina, is not much different from bringing up the others--just harder.

"Nothing is out of reach for her. When the other kids were babies, all I had to do was put things high up, but that doesn't work with Iza. Everything gets stuffed into drawers," she said.

Iza bounded across the coffee table and reached for a jellyroll.

"She's much better now. A year ago, every cup on the table would have been smashed by now," Burke said. "Watching her is a full-time job, but it's terrific fun.

"She doesn't know she's a monkey. She's never seen other monkeys."

Unselective 'Weeding'

The little apprentice learns by imitation, which often is literal.

"She once watched me weeding the garden. The next day, I found she had pulled up all the flowers," said Burke, a psychologist specializing in therapy for the severely handicapped at a government hospital.

Iza has the run of the Burke household, except at night. She sleeps in a large cage, an act of self-defense by the family, but gets a stuffed bunny to cuddle as compensation.

Hershko, 31, was crippled by gunfire in Israel's July 4, 1976, raid on Uganda's Entebbe Airport to rescue more than 100 passengers held hostage by Palestinian hijackers.

He is first on a list of about 20 veterans eligible for a helper like Iza. He now has a need for around-the-clock aid from human attendants, but Iza will give him a degree of independence and solitude.

"She won't replace human help, but it will be pleasant to be alone with the monkey for a few hours every day," Hershko said.

A Second Monkey

Iza and a second capuchin were sent to Israel by Dr. M.J. Willard of the Albert Einstein School of Medicine at New York's Yeshiva University, who has placed half a dozen monkeys with quadriplegics in the United States.

Hershko is secretary of the Israel Program of Simian Aid for the Disabled, which he co-founded with Burke. He also studies computers at Tel Aviv University.

Iza will stay with the Burke family until she matures, at about the age of 3. Then she will undergo a six-month training program to learn simple tasks that will help Hershko.

If he drops the mouth stick with which he operates the computer, she will pick it up. She also will be trained to change computer discs and to fetch things he points to with a laser beam.

Burke said the project costs $5,000 to $6,000 per monkey. The Israeli government pays all bills for its war wounded, who are given sophisticated equipment, cars and housing adapted for their disabilities.

No funds are available to extend the program to accident victims or other civilian quadriplegics, she said.

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