Little things, like trying to flip a light switch or open a jar, can get to him—tasks Marine Cpl. Tim Jeffers never thought twice about for most of his 25 years. But all that, and so much more in this young man’s life, changed on May 18, 2006, when he lost his legs, right eye, part of his skull and a finger to an improvised bomb in Iraq. After six months in a military hospital, he now lives on his own. But doing the basic chores that it takes to get through a day “can really hurt,” says the two-time Purple Heart recipient. “I can do it, but it takes a while.”
Fortunately he now has a little help: Webster, who leaps into action at the point of a laser and Jeffers’ command to “fetch.” A 21-year-old capuchin monkey who has lived in Jeffers’ San Diego apartment since 2008, Webster is a graduate of Helping Hands—a Boston nonprofit that trains monkeys to aid people with impaired mobility. He can operate a remote, retrieve objects from high shelves and even open a jar of peanut butter.
Jeffers heard about Helping Hands in rehab, so he knew a monkey could help around the house. What he didn’t expect was how Webster would help him cope with the lingering trauma of war. “Although I am disabled, he looks up to me as his protector. I don’t feel so depressed with him around.”
“You cannot underestimate the emotional value of somebody like Webster,” says Megan Talbert, executive director of Helping Hands, which places 10 to 12 monkeys a year. (Training costs $38,000, covered by donations and grants.) Those closest to Jeffers see a difference. “Webster has this way of making Tim happy,” says his mom, Brenda Pitts, who lives in Arkansas.
Still, life with a monkey has challenges. “He is a fiend for Cheetos,” says Jeffers, who is supposed to feed Webster protein and complex carbs (chicken and oatmeal are favorites). And per Helping Hands rules, the monkey can’t leave the apartment. “They’re not big on crowds,” says Talbert. But visitors come, and—with prosthetic legs or a wheelchair—Jeffers occasionally goes out. “Between Webster and my friends, I feel okay,” he says. “It is nice having someone excited every time I come home.”