Remember Ross and his monkey Marcel on the TV show "Friends"? To many people, their friendship seemed like one that could only happen on a sitcom -- until now.
Debby Rose, a mother of six from Missouri, gets the same kind of companionship from her monkey Richard. For Rose, Richard is more than just a pet -- he's a form of therapy.
Rose is a realtor and founder of Wild Things Exotic Animal Orphanage, where she cares for the health of nearly 20 monkeys. Now, she says one of them is caring for her health.
"Richard helps me," she said. "He's an emotional support. He calms me down. He lowers my blood pressure, from his soothing and his eye contact. He helps me with that."
Richard helps Rose cope with a debilitating anxiety disorder that can cause high blood pressure, racing heartbeat and panic attacks. When Richard is by Rose's side, she's virtually free of symptoms and doesn't need medication. But not everyone in Rose's town is in support of her unconventional form of therapy.
Doctors Love Monkey, Town Does Not
Rose's doctors are on her side. They say Richard's constant companionship is positive therapy.
"I have a lot of patients that suffer from anxiety ... Many patients are on lots of medication for this problem," said Dr. Larry Halverson, Rose's physician. "Debbie has a monkey that she carries with her and takes no medications and remains very functional. So I think it's a great thing."
But wherever Rose goes, Richard follows, which makes some of her neighbors uncomfortable.
"He sits through hair appointments and nail appointments and dental appointments and doctors' appointments and real estate closings and everything with me," she said.
Unhappy with Richard's constant presence, members of Rose's county started filing complaints with the health department, who then forced Rose to stop taking Richard into supermarkets and restaurants.
The health department says the monkey doesn't fall under the guidelines of a service animal. Kevin Gipson, director of the Springfield Greene County Health Department, believes Richard could pose a public health risk.
"This type of old world monkey has been known to be aggressive. It has a high prevalence of herpes B infection, which is highly fatal in humans when they are exposed to that," Gipson said.
Save the Paxil, She'll Keep the Monkey
Rose says her doctors can vouch for Richard's health.
"Richard is totally healthy. My family physician says he's probably healthier and less a threat than a child," she said.
Rose has vowed to fight to keep Richard by her side, but she worries that eventually she'll be forced to stay home with him. Already, the attention her unique therapy has attracted has turned into a source of embarrassment.
"I have a lot of family here," Rose said. "My son-in-law is a civil engineer and now everyone has to know that his mother-in-law has a mental disorder."
The health department is willing to negotiate with Rose.
"If we can get some clarification based on working with her physician and from the federal government, then we can work with her to come up with an agreeable solution," Gipson said.
Regardless of what her community thinks, Rose would rather stick with Richard than medicate her anxiety.
"If I have to choose walking around with Richard and meeting his needs and caring for him and keeping him clean and healthy as opposed to taking Valium or Paxil, I choose Richard," she said.
Richard, who gets fed, dressed and diapered by Rose, would likely side with his patient.
"Mama loves him," Rose said to Richard, petting him on her lap.