April 7, 2010 -- Where would a monkey hide explosives? It's not a question most people would think to ask, but for those in charge of airport security the query is not as outlandish as you might think.
From time to time, Transportation Security Administration officers come across a disabled passenger traveling with a "service monkey." Like seeing eye dogs that help the blind, service monkeys assist mobility-impaired people and use their hands for functional tasks that their owners cannot perform.
Service monkeys help their owners by retrieving dropped items such as phones and remote controls from the floor, loading DVDs, pushing buttons on TVs and computers, opening bottles of water, turning pages of a book, adjusting reading glasses, repositioning an arm or a leg on a wheelchair after a muscle spasm and a wide variety of other activities.
Helping Hands: Monkey Helpers for the Disabled, a Boston-based charity that is the only IRS-certified charity in the country providing service monkeys, trains Capuchin monkeys, tiny mammals indigenous to South America that average about 6 to 10 pounds. The monkeys are live-in companions and can spend as much as 20 to 30 years with their owners.
Though very rare -- Helping Hands has placed just 137 service monkeys since its founding in 1979 -- they can present a unique challenge for TSA officials.
The monkeys must go through airport security checkpoints like the rest of us, but screening a monkey isn't exactly like checking your typical businessman or even a screaming infant.
The TSA does not collect data on the number of service monkeys that come through its checkpoints, but there are enough that the government agency created a section of its Web site dedicated to the animals and the special guidelines for screening them.
"TSA Security Officers are trained not to touch, feed or play with service animals," said TSA spokesman Greg Soule. "The animals are screened with the assistance of the handler, who must remove the animal from its enclosure and keep it controlled on a leash. With the handler's assistance, the officer will conduct a thorough inspection of the animal."
The monkey also has to go through the metal detector, preferably walking through it while on a leash. The TSA agents do not touch the monkey, but leave it up to the handler to interact with it.
The inspection process may require the handler to take off the monkey's diaper as part of a visual inspection.
Service Monkeys Helpful, But Are They Safe?
So even after all that, do they really let monkeys on airplanes?
Dogs, monkeys and other animals used to help disabled passengers are typically allowed into the cabin with everybody else. Soule noted that TSA does not regulate the types of service animals allowed on planes, saying that the determination is made by each individual airline.
Passengers with service animals are encouraged to inform security officers that the animal is accompanying them as a service animal and not as a pet, Soule said.
"This provides passengers the opportunity to move to the front of the security line since the officer may need to spend more time with them," he said.
It also gives the TSA the chance to bring the monkey to a table for a private inspection, and doubtless offering a lot of people an opportunity to stop and gawk.
And then there is a question of safety. Just last week Joseph Hamric, a 60-year-old man in Chesapeake, Va., was attacked by his service monkey, Noah.
Noah was out of his cage to eat pork chops when he turned on his owner. Hamric, a Vietnam vet, got the monkey to help him cope with post traumatic stress.
The attack started when Hamric accidently stepped on the Noah's tail. The monkey snapped back, locking onto Hamric's thumb, then cut his vein and ligaments in his wrist. Hamric was treated and released from a local hospital and decided, at the urging of local animal control officers, to give up the monkey.
At least, he wasn't at 30,000 feet at the time.
Megan Talbert, executive director of Helping Hands, said that monkey was not one trained by her group.
"It is important to note that Helping Hands service animals are individually and professionally trained to perform tasks for individuals who are physically disabled as a result of spinal cord injury or disease. Our service monkeys are not trained to provide emotional support for people with PTSD or other anxiety disorders," she said.
Talbert said the organization flies about once a month with a monkey to place it with a new owner. The group informs the TSA of its travel plans about a week beforehand.
"We alert them anytime one of our animals is going to fly," Talbert said. "They're wonderful. They've been very, very helpful."
Once on the plane, the monkeys are held in carriers underneath the seats in front of the Helping Hands members, preventing any onboard safety risk to passengers. Talbert said it would be highly unusual for somebody else to be flying with a monkey.
"The people we place monkeys with are so severely disabled that it's very difficult for them to travel long distances outside their home," she said. "It's more than likely that if they travel, one of our monkeys would stay at home with a friend or neighbor."
The monkeys are trained to be service animals for the home, not for public spaces, she said.
"It's not like they would be able to help somebody on vacation," Talbert said. "So it's very, very rare that a client would travel with their monkey."