Travis the Chimpanzee

*The following article contains descriptions of graphic injuries, as well as images of the aftermath of those injuries*

Travis was a 13-year old male common chimpanzee that remains notorious for what is perhaps the most graphic and life-changing non-fatal attack on a human by an animal. A 911 audio recording of the attack served to add to the cases’ infamy, as did the appearance of victim Charla Nash on The Oprah Winfrey Show 10 months after the incident, revealing the shocking aftermath of the attack.

Travis was born in October 1995 at a compound owned by Mike and Connie Casey, now renamed the Missouri Chimpanzee Sanctuary. At three days old, Travis was adopted by Sandra and Jerome Herold, who brought the infant chimpanzee to live with them at their home in Stamford, Connecticut. The couple treated him more like a child than a pet, often bringing him to work with them or on trips to the shops. Travis quickly became a well-known celebrity around Stamford, becoming familiar with many police officers that he would encounter due to Sandra and Jerome’s work running a towing company.

An infant Travis photographed with a member of the Stamford Police Force. Image: Sandra Herold

Growing up around humans, Travis appeared generally very well adapted, often described as listening better than children by neighbours that were familiar with him. Like most chimps, Travis showed a talent for learning new skills and problem solving, including the ability to use keys to open doors, dress himself, drink from a wine glass, use a remote to watch TV and to memorise the schedules of local ice cream trucks. After the death of Jerome Herold in 2004, and the previous passing of the Herold’s only child in a road traffic accident, Sandra begin to treat Travis even more like a child.

A year before Jerome’s death, one incident was reported that suggested there were some potential issues with Travis’s behaviour. However, in this case it is entirely fair to say that he was provoked. While the Herold’s car was stopped at a busy junction, a passerby threw an object that passed through the open window and struck Travis. Incensed, the chimp unbuckled his seatbelt, let himself out of the car and pursued the man, but failed to catch him. After obstructing traffic for some time, police were called. Several attempts to lure the chimp back into the car failed, as Travis simply let himself out of another door. He also demonstrated aggressive behaviour towards officers.

Travis at ten years of age. Image: Kathleen O’Rourke

The incident resulted in the passing of a new Connecticut law banning primates weighing more than 20 pounds being kept as pets (at the time, Travis weighed around 200lb). While the law eventually came into effect in 2009, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection did not enforce the law in regard to Travis as they felt he was well-adjusted to life with Sandra Herold and did not pose a public safety risk. That same year, the horrifying attack for which Travis is most well known took place.

On the afternoon of February 16th 2009, 55-year old Charla Nash, a friend of Sandra, came to the house after Sandra asked her for assistance is retrieving her car keys, which Travis had snatched and left the house with. Nash was an employee for the Herold’s towing company who Travis was familiar with, although she had changed her hairstyle since he last saw her. It is thought that Nash mistakenly picked up a Tickle Me Elmo doll that was one of Travis’s favourite playthings. On seeing this, Travis violently attacked her. Her injuries were extremely extensive, with the 200lb chimp, far stronger than a human of the same size, tearing off the woman’s fingers and jaw, as well as biting off her eyes, nose and lips. 

A juvenile Travis pictured with victim Charla Nash. Image: Sandra Herold

70-year old Sandra attempted to stop the attack, at first striking Travis with a shovel. She then resorted to stabbing him with a large kitchen knife, but again it failed to prevent the assault, although the chimp turned to look at her momentarily before continuing the attack. It was at this point that Sandra made the now notorious 911 call, during which Travis’s screams as he attacks Nash can be clearly heard in the background. Despite her close bond with the animal, Sandra can be heard saying that police will need to shoot him on arrival, as well as stating that “he ripped her face off”. The audio recording can be heard in full here, but readers are warned that it is potentially distressing.

Paramedics arrived on scene first, but waited for police support before entering the property. When a police car arrived Travis left the house and approached it, trying to open a locked door and smashing a wing mirror. As he walked around the car and opened the unlocked driver’s door, officer Frank Chiafari shot him multiple times. The chimp managed to flee back into the house, but was later found dead.

Nash underwent more than seven hours of surgery over the next 72 hours, with counseling provided for staff members that were witness to her injuries. While they were able to reattach her jaw, they were unable to save her sight. On 11th November 2009, Nash publicly revealed her injuries on an episode of The Oprah Winfrey Show. In 2011, Nash underwent face and hand transplant surgery.

A necropsy on Travis’s body was negative for rabies, but found that alprazolam (better known as the tranquilizer xanax) was present in his system. Sandra stated that she had given Travis a cup of tea laced with the sedative earlier in the day, which expert’s speculated may have triggered or exacerbated his aggressive behaviour.

The family of Charla Nash filed a $50 million lawsuit against Sandra Herold, as well as the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, the city of Stamford and the veterinarian that had prescribed the xanax. A little over a year after the attack, Sandra Herold died of a ruptured aortic aneurysm at the age of 72. Her attorney suggested that the loss of her husband, daughter, Travis and having witnessed the horrific attack on Nash had been too much for her heart to cope with. Nash received a settlement thought to be around $4 million from Herold’s estate in 2012.

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