Published February 20, 2009
STAMFORD, Connecticut – Travis the chimpanzee's relationship with his owner was closer than those of some married couples.
Sandra Herold gave him the finest food, and wine in long-stemmed glasses. They took baths together and cuddled in the bed they shared. Travis brushed the lonely widow's hair each night and pined for her when she was away.
If she left the house alone, Travis would give her a kiss.
"If I left with someone Travis would get upset," Herold said Wednesday.
Experts say the unusually human relationship would have been confusing for any animal. It may have also played a role in Travis' savage attack Monday on Herold's friend, 55-year-old Charla Nash of Stamford.
"This is a crazy relationship," said Stephen Rene Tello, executive director of Primarily Primates, a sanctuary for chimps in Texas. "He was probably very bonded with her. I can kind of see it in his eyes this is his surrogate mother."
And chimps like 14-year-old Travis, who was shot and killed by police, protect their mates and turf.
"If there is another person entering his space, he might consider it a threat to his territory, or even his mate," Tello said.
Police say Travis attacked Nash when she arrived at the house to help lure the chimp back into Herold's house. Herold speculated that Travis was being protective of her and attacked Nash because she had a different hairstyle, was driving a different car and held a stuffed toy in front of her face to get the chimp's attention.
Nash suffered massive injuries to her face and hands, requiring more than seven hours of surgery by four teams of doctors to stabilize her. She was transferred in critical condition Thursday to the Cleveland Clinic, which two months ago performed the nation's first successful face transplant.
Hospital officials say Nash is being treated for her injuries and it's unknown if she will be a candidate for a face transplant.
Monday's attack was not the first time Travis bit someone, a former Stamford resident now living in Atlanta said Thursday.
Leslie Mostel Paul told The Associated Press the chimp grabbed her hand and bit it hard enough to draw blood in 1996, while the animal was sitting in Herold's car in a Stamford office parking lot. Paul said she had tried to shake Travis' hand after Herold gave her permission to say hello.
Paul described Herold as being more aggravated than upset about the incident, and said she had to get rabies shots because Herold was slow in producing Travis' medical records.
"My impression was she was more like, 'Oh, this is gonna be a pain in the neck,"' Paul said.
Paul said she reported the incident to police but received no follow-up calls.
"I told them this was serious," said Paul, who spoke by phone from New York, where she was visiting relatives. "If it was a child, it could have ripped the hand off or an arm out a socket."
In an earlier interview on NBC's "Today" show, Paul said, "I honestly believe if they had followed through, maybe the laws would have been changed sooner and this other woman wouldn't be in the hospital, fighting for her life now."
Herold did not return a call seeking comment Thursday about Paul's claims. Police say they have no record of complaints, aside from a 2003 incident where Travis escaped from a vehicle and led police on a two-hour downtown chase before he was caught.
Authorities have not said whether Herold will face criminal charges. Connecticut state law allowed her to own the chimp as a pet, though several state leaders are calling for tighter restrictions in the wake of Monday's attack.
Herold, who was known to buckle Travis in her car for rides and dress him in baseball shirts, tried to rescue Nash by stabbing Travis and hitting him with a shovel. "I stabbed something I raised as a son," she said Wednesday.
It's not known why the chimp suddenly attacked. Herold has given differing accounts on whether she treated the agitated chimp with Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug that had not been prescribed for him. She has also said it suffered from Lyme disease. A test for rabies was negative and results from a necropsy won't be available for weeks.
Lynn DellaBianca, a former Stamford animal control officer, said Thursday that she warned Herold after the 2003 incident that the pet's behavior was worrisome and that she needed to make sure he was kept under control.
"Certainly my concern was for public safety," DellaBianca told The Associated Press. "Male chimpanzees once they reach maturity can be aggressive. I'm sure I did express that to her."
Herold told her she expected to eventually have to give up the chimp, DellaBianca said.
"She did say that herself. She knew someone day he would probably have to go to a sanctuary," DellaBianca said. "She knew chimpanzees, they can get more difficult to handle as they get older."
Mental health professionals say a strong bond between pet owners and their animals is generally good because it can be therapeutic and comforting. The boundaries get blurred, though, when owners treat the animals like humans rather than pets, and expect a reciprocal relationship similar to what they would have with a family member.
David Baron, professor and chairman of the Temple University School of Medicine's psychiatry department, said in cases such as Herold's, the grief of losing loved ones could have made it easy for her to view Travis as a surrogate child and friend. Her husband died in 2004 and her only daughter was killed in a car accident several years ago.
"I wouldn't say that she shouldn't have a pet, but this may be something that should be looked at as part of a grief reaction that's beyond normal," he said.
Earl Mason, whose son married Herold's daughter, remembers when Herold got Travis. The chimp would ride a tricycle.
"He grew up like a youngster," Mason said. "He did everything a kid would do. He was a cute little guy."
Travis loved ice cream and even knew the schedules of the ice cream trucks, Mason said. He ate breakfast at the table with Herold and her husband.
But even when the chimp was a baby, Mason was amazed at his strength. When Travis would jump on him, Mason said he would slam into his chest.
"To me he was beating the crap out of me," Mason said. "He had just tremendous strength."
Don Mecca, a family friend, said Herold knew chimps became more difficult to handle as they get older, but she had a hard time parting with her beloved pet.
"Sandy would always say he would will himself to die if they were separated," Mecca said.
Mecca was reluctant to criticize his friend.
"I think he was lost," Mecca said of Travis. "He belongs in the jungle with the rest of them."