From the “Well, what the fuck did you think was going to happen?” files, a 170-pound chimpanzee ran amuck in Stamford, Connecticut yesterday and mauled a woman, sending her to the hospital with serious injuries, nearly killing her. The chimp, whose name was Travis, had been behaving violently all day, may have been annoyed because he wanted to go for a ride. He stole his owner’s keys, let himself out of the house, and was making his way up the street tapping on the windows of cars when Charla Nash, a friend of the chimp’s owner, arrived to help coax the chimp back inside. Perhaps mistaking her for an intruder, Travis set upon Nash and inflicted injuries to her face and hands which the New York Times describes as “horrendous.”
Travis had been on medication for Lyme disease, and earlier in the day his owner, 70 year-old Sandra Herold, had slipped him some Xanax in a cup of tea in an attempt to calm him down. It didn’t work. Herold called 911. The responding emergency vehicles spooked Travis and he abandoned his assault on Nash and ran off, returning a few minutes later to menace the police who had since arrived on the scene. He opened the door of a police cruiser before the officer had a chance to get out. Trapped in his car and faced with an irate chimp with the strength of five men, the officer pulled his sidearm and shot Travis several times at very close range. Travis fled again, and after Nash and the traumatized Mrs. Herold were taken to the hospital, police found him dead inside his furnished cage.
There are three parties in this story I feel very bad for. The first is obviously Ms. Nash, who according to some reports I’ve heard nearly had her hands torn off. The second is the police officer Travis attacked, who was forced to defend himself the only way he could. The third is Travis, who brutalized Ms. Nash out of instinct and fear, not out of malice.
There are two parties in this story for whom I have not the tiniest shred of sympathy. They are Sandra and Jay Herold, the owners of Travis.
Five years ago Travis first made headlines by escaping from Sandra Herold’s SUV and holding up traffic in Stamford. Police shot the chimp with tranquilizer darts and returned him to the custody of the Herolds. He was a local celebrity, known for riding around town with his owners, even accompanying Jay in his tow truck, sometimes riding along in the vehicle being towed. The Herolds had also trained Travis to drink wine from a stemmed glass, wear human clothes, give himself a bath, and surf the internet. The New York Times article reports that Sandra Herold raised Travis “almost as one of her own children.”
One of her children who slept in a cage. Okay, it does say almost . . .
Chimpanzees are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom. Humans and chimps share 94% of their DNA, and may have shared a common ancestor as recently as five million years ago. They can make and use tools, hunt in groups, display signs of empathy, and practice deception. They even laugh. Chimps are the most sophisticated and intelligent non-human animals known to exist, and as such make exceedingly poor pets. Domesticated chimps go way back in the Congo, but the Congo ain’t the United States. Despite their intelligence and social sophistication, a house in Connecticut is about the last place they belong.
As I’ve mentioned a few times already, Travis weighed almost 200 pounds and had the strength of five adult men. The Herolds may have wanted him to be a child, but he wasn’t. He was a wild animal. There’s no shame in that, but that’s what he should have been allowed to be. Chimpanzees didn’t evolve in suburban homes; they aren’t adapted to tow trucks and SUVs. They belong in the wild, among the trees. It’s only natural we should feel some affinity for them, but they aren’t us, and we have no right to expect them to be.
Some years ago the young son of my best friend was bitten in the face by a dog that belonged to his grandparents. The dog, a big male black lab, had never been trained, didn’t obey commands, and spent most of his time locked up in a pet carrier in the kitchen while his owners were at work. When not cooped up in the carrier, he was outside on the end of a chain. Prior to the arrival of the grandkids a few years before, the dog had never been around young children. When he turned on the boy — nearly biting his lower lip off, a nasty wound that needed stitches to close and left a scar on the little guy’s chin — I didn’t blame him for what he had done. I blamed the shit-clueless morons who owned him, who had allowed him to grow into adulthood without teaching him how to behave around people, and who had forced a large, naturally active animal to exist most of the time in a space too small for him stand up in.
So I blame Jay and Sandra Herold, not poor Travis. I don’t think they’re legally liable for anything, but I do think they bear some responsibility here. Travis didn’t know any better. The Herold’s did. Or they should have.