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Travis, Tragedy and the Other Chimpanzees

By Michael Mountain

Travis and Charla when he was a youngster

In February, 2009, 14-year-old chimpanzee Travis attacked Charla Nash, a friend of the woman who “owned” him. He tore off her nose, ears and hands, and blinded her as his owner, Sandra Herold, frantically beat him, stabbed him and called the police. When they arrived at her home in Connecticut, they shot Travis dead.

More than four years later, Nash has been in the news again this week as she attempts to sue the State of Connecticut for $150 million, arguing that officials knew that Travis was dangerous but did nothing about it.

Nash has already received $4 million from the estate of Herold, who died in 2010. But she’s unlikely to win this latest suit since the state is generally  immune to lawsuits, and the claims commissioner is saying that at the time when she was attacked, the state allowed private ownership of chimpanzees.

While this particular case is not related to the work of the Nonhuman Rights Project, it gives distressing insight into the world of chimpanzee ownership and the tragic, long-term consequences when something goes wrong – as it so often does. As such, it offers some poignant background to our work in arguing that other chimpanzees have a fundamental right to bodily liberty – i.e. not to be kept in captivity by humans.

Travis was born at a self-styled “sanctuary” in Missouri in 1995, and was taken from his mother, Suzy, three days later, so he could be “adopted” by the Herolds for the sum of $50,000. Suzy had spent most of her life at a zoo. Travis’s father, Coco, had been captured from the rain forest in Africa as a youngster.

Coco and Suzy remained in Missouri, but escaped in 2001. They ran to a nearby housing development and lunged at a car full of teenage boys who were pulling into their driveway. One of the boys pulled out a shotgun and killed Suzy. Coco was recaptured.

(A similar fate befell another pair of chimpanzees, Buddy and C.J., who escaped from the cage that was their “home” in Las Vegas in July 2012 and wandered down a suburban street. A police officer killed Buddy, and C.J. was recaptured and sent to a sanctuary in Oregon – but not before she’d escaped a second time. That same week, in Germany, five chimpanzees escaped at the Hanover Zoo and went wandering around while 2,500 terrified human visitors were evacuated. Both stories are here.) Travis still slept in her bed, ate lobster at the table, drank from a long-stem wine glass, and behaved in other quasi-human ways that fulfilled her fantasies.

Travis was brought up as a kind of semi-human pet, dressed like a child, traveling around with the Herolds, going shopping with them, and paying for his upbringing by spending much of his early life being rented out for TV shows and commercials.

As long as he was a youngster, Travis could be contained. But, like their human cousins, chimpanzees grow up and have a mind of their own. And, also like with human teenagers, we don’t always know what they’re thinking. Sandra Herold assumed that all was well, since Travis still slept in her bed, ate lobster at the table, drank from a long-stem wine glass, and behaved in all manner of other quasi-human ways that fulfilled whatever fantasy it was that she had about him. (His story is told in grim but fascinating detail at New York magazine.)

In 2003, when he was 8 years old, Travis had his first bad behavior episode. While Sandra was taking him for a drive around town, he unbuckled his seat belt, let himself out of the car, lunged at a pedestrian, rolled around in the road, jumped on cars, and led the police on a chase through town for the next two hours. Police officers agreed that he was just being “playful”, but it should have been a warning sign, especially when primatologists told the animal control department that Travis was now an fully sexualized adult with the strength of five men.

And then he snapped.

On his last day, at age 14, and morbidly obese at 250 pounds, Travis seemed agitated after a lunch of fish and chips and ice cream cake. Sandy popped a Xanax in his tea and called her friend Charla to ask her to come over and help settle him down. When Charla arrived, Travis attacked her. Sandy came running out and started beating Travis over the head with a shovel, but he just continued tearing Charla apart. Sandy even stabbed him repeatedly with a kitchen knife, but he wouldn’t stop. Sandy ran to her car and dialed 911. When the first police officer arrived, Travis staggered up to his car and opened the door. As New York magazine describes it:

The officer lurched. He struggled to remove his gun from its holster. His body became wedged against the center-console computer. Travis stared into the car, baring his blood-streaked teeth. In one swift motion the officer at last released his gun and fired four rounds. Travis staggered backward, screeched, defecated, and ran off.

The officer got out of his car. Huge chunks of scalp and fingers lay scattered around the yard. He walked slowly to the body. With the stump of what remained of her arm, Charla Nash reached for his leg.

As another group of officers set out into the woods to look for him, Travis scampered unnoticed into the house. Leaving a trail of blood, he knuckle-walked through the kitchen, the bedroom, and into his room. Then he grasped his bedpost, heaved forward, and died.

Charla Nash’s injuries were overwhelming. Travis had bitten or torn away her eyelids, nose, jaw, lips, and most of her scalp. He’d broken nearly all the bones of her facial structure. He’d fully removed one of her hands and virtually all of the other. He’d rendered her blind.

Travis was cremated, and when Sandy Herold died, his ashes were interred in the casket with her.

charla-travis-062713Over the years since the attack, Charla has had multiple, extensive surgeries, including facial reconstruction, but she remains blind and with no hands.

It is a tragedy in the true sense of the word – a morality tale of the human condition, of the arrogance of presuming to “own” other animals who belong with their own families in their own natural homes; of our blindness to their nature and to our own; and of the wreck and ruin that inevitably follow.

And while this is the story of just one individual chimpanzee – of his true family and his human family, and o
f the fate that befell them all and that still hangs like a curse over all the survivors – it’s also a story that’s been told over and over in the lives and deaths of so many other chimpanzees and their captors. As long as we pursue this arrogance, tragedy will inevitably follow in its wake.

This week, as the continuing plight of Charla Nash was in the news once again, the director of the National Institutes of Health announced that 310 chimpanzees who are “owned” by the government and exist in laboratories around the country will be released to sanctuaries. Fifty will remain – in case the government decides they’re needed for more medical experimentation.

“Chimpanzees are very special animals. They are our closest relatives,” said NIH director Francis Collins at a press conference. “We believe they deserve special consideration.”

They do. All of them. With no hold-outs or exceptions. Including that final 50. And from whatever form of captivity – and for whatever purposes – they’re being held.

As long as we pursue this arrogance, tragedy will inevitably follow in its wake.

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