FRANKFORT, Ky. -- A bill filed this week to allow primates to be used in Kentucky as service monkeys to aid paralyzed people is drawing opposition and — the sponsor says — jokes.
"Obviously there's a lot of jokes, but this isn't a joke," said a tearful state Sen. John Schickel, a Republican from Union.
Schickel said in an interview Friday that he filed the bill on behalf of a Kentucky family that wants to use a service monkey to assist a girl who was paralyzed from the neck down in an automobile accident. Schickel said he is friends with her father and planned to check with the family to see if they want to go public with their story. "This is a family looking for solutions," he said. "I don't know if this is one or not."
The bill is drawing criticism, however, from the Primate Rescue Center in Nicholasville, which says it is home to more than 50 "unwanted" monkeys and apes, including some that were used in programs like the one Schickel is proposing.
"The intentions of people who are in favor of this are honorable, but misguided," said April Truitt, the center's executive director. "Wild animals aren't suitable as companion animals. Having a wild animal in your home puts both the animal and the owner at risk of getting injured."
The bill defines service monkeys as "any capuchin monkey that is individually trained" by a registered nonprofit "to perform tasks in a home environment for adults living with paralysis who are unable to perform day-to-day tasks and activities for themselves."
Schickel said he doesn't know if the bill will get anywhere. "I'm here to open the discussion, talk about it, see if we can work something out," he said. "If we can't, we can't. If we can, we can. This is about trying to help people if we can help people. ... I knew when I filed the bill there would be pros and cons."
Americans with Disabilities Act regulations do not recognize monkeys as service animals, but Schickel said some states do.
Schickel said legislative staffers who drafted the bill have been in contact with Helping Hands, a Boston nonprofit that places service monkeys. Messages left with the agency seeking comment were not returned Friday.
Helping Hands' website says monkeys' "dexterous hands and amazing fine motor skills" help paralyzed people perform tasks that other service animals can't, such as turning pages, retrieving objects and inserting straws in bottles.
Kentucky Department of Fish and Wildlife Resources spokesman Mark Marraccini said the agency has not taken a position on the bill.
Primates have not been allowed to be brought into Kentucky since then-Gov. Paul Patton issued an executive order in 2003 in response to a suspected outbreak of monkeypox, Marraccini said. Besides the risk of disease, he said there have been cases where monkeys attacked their keepers.
Marraccini said subsequent regulations made it largely illegal to possess a primate in Kentucky unless it was owned before the rule took effect.
"They're just incredibly strong, as well as they're dangerous," Marraccini said. "They don't make good pets."
The state Department of Public Health is still reviewing the bill but has concerns about public health risks it would pose, said Cabinet for Health and Family Services spokeswoman Gwenda Bond, declining to elaborate.
The U.S. Justice Department guidelines for the ADA limit service animals to dogs and housebroken miniature horses, according to The Associated Press, which said the guidelines are not binding on states or local governments that can make their own rules.
Truitt said it's unclear how many states allow primates to be possessed. She said Kentucky is one of a few states that ban primates as pets but don't have an exemption for using them as service animals.
The American Veterinary Medical Association also has opposed primates being used as service animals because of animal welfare issues, the risk of human injury and disease.