- Cullman, Alabama

July 20, 2006

Helping Hands

Service monkey helps couple

Will Mezick

She's visited the French Quarter in New Orleans, taken a stroll down Bourbon Street and, despite being less than a year old, played the slots at the Palace Casino in Biloxi. She even has plans set for a trip to Seattle, Wash., later this year.

Seems a bit unusual for your average 10-month-old, doesn't it? Maybe. But Sissy, a white face capuchin monkey, is anything but average Ñ even for a monkey. She is a SARA (Service Animal Registry of America) certified service animal currently being trained by Sheila Huff.

Huff has raised exotic animals for years, owning a traveling petting zoo for 11. Though she has scaled back from the nearly 150 exotics she used to own, Huff currently houses about 50 alpacas, monkeys, lemurs, llamas, kangaroos, donkeys and marmosets at her home in Holly Pond.

Huff saw the need for a service monkey after a recent shoulder surgery made it difficult for her to reach certain items. Her husband, Burean has also had multiple surgeries Ñ four hip replacements Ñ making it difficult to perform certain everyday tasks. It may seem a bit unusual to have a service monkey, but Huff said because of life span and learning curve, animals such as monkeys and miniature horses are beginning to replace dogs. Capuchin monkeys like Sissy have an average life span of about 40 years, much longer than any dog.

"It can take seven years to fully train a service dog," Sheila said. "By then the dog is halfway through its life."

The Huffs insist Sissy isn't really an animal, she's more like child.

"She's as much like a kid as anything you've ever seen," Burean said.

She's avidly interested upon meeting new people, hopping cautiously toward them to inspect their hair and whatever devices they may be carrying. She has her likes Ñ music by Garth Brooks and Trisha Yearwood Ñ and dislikes Ñ baths. And being a monkey hasn't made her immune to the reality show phenomenon.

"She loved Taylor Hicks," Sheila Huff said. "She usually sleeps through American Idol, but when Taylor came on she would hop up and dance."

According to Sheila, Sissy currently has the mental capacity of about a 2-and-a-half-year-old child, and she shows it. She is extremely curious and learns simple tasks with relative ease. Sissy also tends to get into to trouble, jumping onto tables and teasing with the other caged animals in the house. She's even figured out how to unlock her own cage. The Huffs treat her like any child, putting her in time-out when she does something she's not supposed to and praising her for good behavior. When she is fully trained, which typically takes between three and five years, Sissy will have the mental capabilities of the average 12-year-old.

When she goes out with the Huffs, most people are intrigued by Sissy, wanting to touch or play with her. However, federal law prohibits service animals from being touched in public.

The Huffs have taken Sissy to a multitude of places, and out of all their travels, just one place refused to let Sissy in. A small candy store vehemently denied Sissy access.

"For some reason this one man did not want us in the store," Sheila said.

Though not required by law, Sheila presented Sissy's certified service animal ID card to the man attempting to kick them out, but the man threw it back in her face, still demanding they leave.

"He just kept screaming at us," she said.

Federal laws state service animals are allowed to go anywhere the public can Ñ restaurants, businesses, grocery stores, department stores hospitals and taxis, to name a few. According to the U.S. Department of Justice and the American with Disabilities Act, businesses may ask if an animal is a service animal and what tasks the animal is trained to do but cannot ask to see special ID cards or ask about a person's disability. Persons with disabilities who use service animals cannot be charged additional fees or be isolated from other patrons. Also, businesses that serve or prepare food must allow service animals in public areas even if state or local health codes prohibit animals. The service animal owner assumes all responsibility for the animal. As such, a service animal can be asked to leave only if the animal is out of control and the owner cannot take effective action to control it or the animal poses a direct threat to the health and safety of others. Sissy, Sheila said, has had her sharp teeth grinded down to prevent painful bites and rarely has trouble when taken out in public. In fact, she had done nothing wrong upon entering the candy store. The store that refused the Huffs and Sissy now faces severe fines. According to Sheila, places that do not allow service animals are fined according to size (typically $10,000 on first offense), but due to the small size if the store, its fine will be around $3,000. For additional information on the ADA and service animals, contact the U.S. Department of Justice's ADA Information Line at (800)514-0301 (voice) or (800)514-0383 (TTY) or visit