ALEX COHEN, host:
Back now with Day to Day. Chances are you've seen a blind person accompanied by a guide dog before, but what about a guide horse? Or a service parrot? Or a monkey trained to help an agoraphobic? These are the animals Rebecca Skloot wrote about in a piece titled "Creature Comforts." It will appear in this Sunday's New York Times Magazine. Rebecca joins me now. Welcome to the program.
Ms. REBECCA SKLOOT (Freelance Science Writer; Author, "Creature Comforts," New York Times Magazine, January 4, 2009): Thanks for having me.
COHEN: This piece starts out with a really wonderful little vignette. Children are out trick-or-treating, and they see a woman, and she's accompanied by a black and white, adorable miniature horse, and one of the kids says to her, cool costume. But as you write, the woman is blind; the horse is not a costume; it is with her every day to help guide her. Rebecca, why have a guide miniature horse instead of a dog?
Ms. SKLOOT: There are a lot of reasons for it, and the first reason that miniature horse users give is lifespan. Horses tend to live and work into their 30s, whereas a guide dog will work probably six to eight years total. They're usually not placed for the blind person until they're around two, and they usually retire around anywhere between eight and 10. So, what that means is that in a life of a blind person, they can go through, you know, many dogs, and some guide dogs just don't work out. But in addition to the longer lifespan, there is also - they're herd animals, so they sort of naturally work really well with other people, because they're aware of, sort of, moving in synchronicity with another creature. And they also have incredibly good vision. They see 360 degrees and are actually aware of their surroundings in a way that dogs aren't always, because they're actually - they're prey animals as opposed to predators. So, they're very aware of what goes on above them, such as, you know, a construction rope or something like that. They might actually notice that before a dog would.
COHEN: In this piece, you write about a man named Jim Eggers, and he has bipolar disorder with psychotic tendencies. Could you tell us about his service animal? Her name is Sadie.
Ms. SKLOOT: Yeah, Sadie is an African Grey parrot. So she's a pretty small parrot. And she rides around on his back in a backpack, a bright purple backpack, that he's had built around a cage. So, she's in a cage on his back, and he's pretty severely bipolar, and he has these psychotic tendencies, and he is often threatening to attack people or actually attacked people in past. And what Sadie does is she rides around his back, and she can actually sense when he's starting to get upset before he realizes it's even happening. And she'll say, it's OK, Jim. Calm down, Jim. I'm here, Jim. You're all right, Jim. And she'll just do this in a loop, and she'll talk him down.
COHEN: According to the Americans with Disabilities Act, service animals are allowed to go wherever there are human owners are, but as you write, that's been causing some problems. What's been happening there?
Ms. SKLOOT: People are just used to dogs. They don't associate parrots, horses, monkeys, ferrets, you know, ducks, goats with service animals. So, I think the reaction of a lot of business owners and the general public is often one of suspicion that you're sort of making it up.
COHEN: It sounds as if some people are just not exactly comfortable with animals being in their businesses, but as you point out, there're also some concerns about health that might be legitimate. You talk about a certain kind of monkey that is known to carry certain types of diseases. I mean, it sounds like there might be some potential problems here.
Ms. SKLOOT: Pretty much everyone I talked to said, horses, birds, you know, ferrets, they don't pose any more of a health risk than dogs and cats do. Monkeys can be a different story, in part because some breeds of monkeys carry viruses that can be deadly to humans. So, they carry, particularly, herpes B, which is a virus that has a minimal effect on the monkeys, sort of like cold sores with us. But if a human gets it, it's over 70 percent fatal, and there is nothing you can really do about it. So, this is a fairly, you know - there's good reason to be concerned about that. But the most commonly used monkey for service animals is a capuchin monkey. They're the small, sort of organ-grinder monkeys, and they've been working with quadriplegics since the early '80s. and you know, they do things like open bottles, and you know, put food in the microwave and scratch itches, I mean, they're incredible service animals. And they aren't a strain that's usually - that carries this sort of virus.
COHEN: Rebecca, you spent a lot of time with these people and the animals that have been helping them. Is there one moment that stands out to you for something that just was really surprising in terms of what these animals were capable of doing?
Ms. SKLOOT: Yeah, there were several, and I actually think that the moment that I started the story with, where Ann and her guide miniature horse Panda are walking around their neighborhood, was really, I think, the most striking for me, yeah, because I could sort of envision how a horse could help guide a person. But the level that which Panda guides her is really amazing. She - you know, in just a few blocks, I saw her maneuver Ann around things that I, as a person who is sighted, wouldn't have even, sort of, thought of, like, you know, a drainage ditch in the ground.
And one of the things that was sort of striking to me was her use of her hooves, and this is something that Ann, sort of, pointed out to me later and said, you know, this was kind of a perk that we didn't expect, that you can hear her hooves when she walks, sort of sounds like someone who's walking in clogs. And she'll walk up to a sidewalk, and as they're walking along, she'll take her hoof and sort of kind of go, cluck, and she'll tap the sidewalk so that Ann knows, oh, here's a step up. At one point, Ann has the horse find her the button to cross, to walk across the street, the walk signal button. She walks up to a pole, and she says, find the button, and Panda, you know, trotted up to the pole and tapped at the base of the pole, so Ann knew that they were now at the pole. And you can hear all these different tones with Panda's hooves.
And it was this little moment, where I thought, you know - I sort of register, wow, this is something that a dog absolutely couldn't do. You can hear when you're on wood; you can hear when you're on leaves. You can hear a pitch change in any terrain that you're on, which added this whole element to working with this horse that, you know, Ann had never experienced with a dog. So, that was one moment where I sort of, you know - it's not - that wasn't necessarily an ability that the horse had. It was just something that Panda's trainer, you know, in the process of training her, they realized, hey, this is something that, you know, we can really work with, and they sort of took advantage of it.
COHEN: Rebecca Skloot's piece "Creature Comforts" will appear in the Sunday New York Times magazine. Rebecca, thank you.
Ms. SKLOOT: Thank you.
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COHEN: If you'd like to see photographs of Panda the horse, Sadie the parrot and the service monkey named Richard, go to our blog. It's npr.org/daydreaming. Day to Day is a production of NPR News, with contributions from Slate.com. I'm Alex Cohen.
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