Bobby Manheim docks his boat at Pelican Pete’s, and the show starts, whether he wants it to or not.
As Manheim walks on the bow, leaning over to apply two new decals to his Porsche GTS, people nearby start to notice the white-faced, black-haired capuchin monkey on his back. He knows they will. Someone always does. Over 22 years of bringing this primate named Dr. Irving with him to everything from hospitals and schools to birthday parties and TV shows, Manheim understands the novelty others see in their pairing. To the gawkers, they are a walking photo-op. A man wearing an Atlanta Falcons hat diverts from where he’s going and walks over to Manheim, pulls out his cell phone and takes a picture. Click. Two men walking by stop in their tracks. Click.
“The monkey’s just the best thing,” says Cheli Martin, who stands nearby. Manheim and Dr. Irving have arrived for a video shoot on the lake, but the driver of his chase boat got sick the night before, forcing Manheim to scramble for another. There was still no chase boat just minutes before the video shoot, but Manheim ran into Martin coming into Pelican Pete’s and asked for help on a whim. Martin was there spending the day boating with her daughter and daughter’s boyfriend. She recognized Manheim and Dr. Irving instantly.
“Everybody always crowds around (them),” Martin says.
Indeed, those who spend time around Lake Lanier have surely encountered the two. They’ve been a recognizable presence around metro Atlanta for more than two decades providing animal-assisted therapy for children and adults with special needs. They’ve given motivational presentations at churches and schools, performed at fundraising events, visited ill children in hospitals. They go into where there is despair and try to bring light.
Manheim first saw the potential of Dr. Irving in 1995. A longtime photojournalist, Manheim had been in a serious car accident that required back surgery, except the surgery only made it worse. He struggled to walk, even with medicine. Even so, a close friend of Manheim called one day. A girl in college had purchased a baby monkey for a pet but realized she was in over her head. The friend knew Manheim had a background with animals. He owned a dog (Nudge) and a parrot (Schleppy) that he brought to meet kids with special needs. He had had a close friend in high school whose parents worked with primates. Would he take the monkey?
Sure, Manheim said.
People told Manheim he was crazy. The two’s first encounter made them look right. Manheim brought the monkey home, opened the cage and was attacked with scratching, biting, pooping and peeing.
Manheim’s solution: unconditional love.
“I said no matter what he does, I’m going to give him a hug and a kiss,” Manheim said.
It took 90 days, but on the 91st day, the monkey gave him a kiss. Manheim says the joy of the breakthrough gave him such a rush that he walked the best he had in the previous year that day. To celebrate, he got in his black Porsche 930 Turbo he hadn’t driven in months and headed to a Roswell car wash. A woman recognized him. She knew of his work with special needs kids. Maybe, she asked, he could help a young girl at Scottish Rite with a 105-degree fever? Not much had been working. Doctors were ready to try to ice her down.
A few days later, Manheim was called to the hospital. He rushed there at 2 a.m. with an 8-foot stuffed Pink Panther and his new monkey. Manheim walked in. The young girl, named Kim Hogan, saw the monkey, and she started to laugh. Within five minutes, her fever broke.
It was a revelation for Manheim and reaffirmed the work he’d been doing with children.
“The one thing I never get bored with is touching peoples’ lives,” Manheim said.
Monkey see, monkey do
Word spread of Dr. Irving’s therapeutic presence. Calls from hospitals would come in at 4 a.m., but Manheim relished to rush and help. Once, while he was in Miami for a boat show, Manheim got a call that an ill child in Grand Haven, Mich. wanted to meet Dr. Irving. Manheim drove 22 hours straight to make it happen.
A measure of prominence followed. The duo had a performance contract with the radio station Star 94. They appeared on The Maury Povich Show. He started a school tour, bringing Dr. Irving to 50-60 schools a year. Dr. Irving took pictures with Chipper Jones and Jeff Foxworthy and Eric Clapton. When a law was passed giving pet monkeys the same privileges in public as other therapy animals, Manheim and Dr. Irving were the special guests to the floor of the Georgia State Capitol. The duo was once sponsored by Kroger, Pepsi and Dum Dum Lollipops.
Along the way, the two developed a familial bond. Manheim refers to his dog and parrot as pets. Not Dr. Irving.
“He’s different,” Manheim says. “He hugs. He’ll kiss. If I tickle him, he’ll start laughing. He’ll open things for me. He’ll tell me, uh-uh.”
Irving requires near-constant monitoring. The duo’s website, monkeydocter.net, lists him at 1-foot-7 and 10 pounds. He rarely sleeps in a cage but more often “crashes with the dog,” Manheim says. He enjoys pasta and seafood, with an occasional banana. Manheim keeps him in a diaper, which he sometimes changes 18 times in a day.
“It’s a full-time job,” Manheim said.
But on this day at the lake, Manheim and Dr. Irving are ready for a cruise.
They hop back in Manheim’s Porsche boat and head for the main channel. Dr. Irving sits on Manheim’s lap and steers through a no-wake zone.
Before they reach open waters, Dr. Irving has some grooming to take care of. After a drink of Coca-Cola from a miniature red plastic cup, Dr. Irving brushes his teeth. Manheim pulls out an electric razor and gives Dr. Irving a haircut. With each cut, Dr. Irving points to a different spot on his head as if to say ‘You missed a spot.’ Manheim holds a mirror up for Dr. Irving to assess the haircut. Dr. Irving looks for a second, then pushes it away.
Manheim has a simple explanation for these human-like behaviors.
“Monkey see, monkey do,” he says.
'The coolest monkey'
They pass the no-wake zone. Every so often, Manheim will point to direct Dr. Irving. The wind is mild, making for choppy waters, but the sky is clear and blue. They pass under Boling Bridge and explore a cove.
Manheim has been coming to these waters since he was 9 years old. His father owned a vending machine company but loved boats, so Manheim did too. He took an auxiliary course with the Coast Guard and drooled over yachting magazines. He says he can identify most boats from a mile away.
“Probably a lot of people think I live here because I’m here all the time,” Manheim says.
In fact, Manheim grew up around Atlanta. He went to Briarcliff High School in DeKalb County. Possessed by a freneticism that he expects would have been diagnosed as attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, Manheim was the class clown. He learned to play drums and took an interest in photography. At the University of South Florida, he tried to make it through med school, but a professor noticed him struggle and encouraged him to follow his passion for photography.
Bobby Manheim and Dr. Irving
Manheim’s father was a Shriner, and his involvement in the society impressed on Manheim the need to help others. He remembers going to the Shrine Circus and local hospitals.
“It was the best thing he ever showed me,” Manheim says. “I saw kids in wheelchairs. I saw kids my age that didn’t have arms. And he would just say, ‘Son, see what you’ve got to be thankful for?’”
Manheim’s photography career took off, and more and more he started to be around the famous. He observed celebrities rebuffing eager fans. He saw professional athletes turn away kids asking for an autograph.
It informs him now when he’s in public with Dr. Irving.
“I will not turn down a child,” Manheim says. “I know what it would feel like. I’ve seen athletes do it, and it devastates a kid.”
After their video shoot is over, Manheim and Dr. Irving navigate back to Pelican Pete’s. The restaurant is busier. As they dock, a family of six linger.
“Look inside the boat,” the mom says. “There’s a monkey. How cool is that?”
“That’s the coolest monkey ever,” the dad says.
Manheim and Dr. Irving walk past the onlookers with Martin and her daughter and daughter’s boyfriend right behind. Manheim promised them a photo with Dr. Irving for saving his video shoot at the last second, so they find an empty section of tables. Dr. Irving climbs on Martin’s daughter’s head.
“Now turn it on video and I’ll have him give you a kiss on the cheek,” Manheim says.
Sure enough, Dr. Irving kisses her cheek. Martin’s daughter squeals with delight.
Another person’s day made brighter by Manheim and Dr. Irving.