February 18, 2009
Woman Mauled by Chimpanzee ‘Extremely Critical’
By ANDY NEWMAN and ANAHAD O’CONNOR
A 55-year-old woman who was mauled by a 200-pound pet chimpanzee in Connecticut remained listed in “extremely critical” condition on Tuesday, as police officials investigated whether illness might have changed the animal’s behavior.
Charla Nash, a friend of the chimpanzee’s owner, was viciously attacked in Stamford on Monday — with much of her face torn away — when she stepped out of her car at her friend’s house. The male chimpanzee, Travis, was eventually shot dead by officers, and Ms. Nash was taken to Stamford Hospital, where she remained on Tuesday.
In an interview, Capt. Richard Conklin of the Stamford Police said that Travis, 14, was believed to have Lyme disease, a tick-borne bacterial infection that in rare cases has been linked to psychosis, severe anxiety and delusional behavior. Travis had been in an agitated state most of the day Monday, and at one point his owner took the unusual step of giving him tea laced with Xanax in an attempt to calm him down, Capt. Conklin said.
“We’re trying to see if that factored into this,” he said of the Lyme disease.
Other than medication he might have been taking for the disease, Travis was not on any drugs and was not usually given Xanax, he added.
Despite their appearances, chimpanzees are known to possess astonishing power, with the average adult male having four to five times the upper-body strength of an adult human. As pets, they can be extremely difficult. They typically act aggressively toward their owners when they reach adulthood, and once reared by humans, they cannot be re-introduced into the wild because other chimpanzees will reject them, experts say.
The injuries Travis inflicted on Ms. Nash, whom he had known for years, were called horrendous.
“I’ve been doing this a long time and have never seen anything this dramatic on a living patient,” said Capt. Bill Ackley of Stamford Emergency Medical Service and the head of the paramedic crew that treated Ms. Nash..
The attack, in the driveway of a sprawling home in a densely wooded neighborhood on the north side of Stamford, marked a brutal end for Travis, a popular figure in town who had appeared in television commercials and often posed for photographs at the towing shop operated by his owners. He had escaped before, and in 2003 playfully held up traffic at a busy intersection for several hours, But he had no history of violence, the authorities said. Travis’s social skills included drinking wine from a stemmed glass, dressing and bathing himself and using a computer.
Travis’s owner, Sandra Herold, 70, had raised him almost as one of her own children, but found herself lunging at him with a butcher knife on Monday to protect Ms. Nash, said Capt. Conklin, who gave the following account.
Ms. Herold told detectives that Travis was in a rambunctious mood Monday afternoon. He took her keys from the kitchen table, unlocked a door and let himself out into the yard at 241 Rock Rimmon Road.
“He’s going to different cars and tapping on them, trying the doors, a clear indication he wanted to go for a ride,” Captain Conklin said.
Travis would not be lured back into the house, even after Ms. Herold gave him the Xanax-laced tea. Ms. Herold called Ms. Nash, who drove over, but when she stepped out of her car at around 3:40 p.m., Travis went at her full force. While it was not clear what prompted the assault, Ms. Nash had markedly changed her hairstyle since the last time Travis had seen her, possibly leading him to mistake her for an intruder.
Ms. Herold tried to pull Travis off her friend, but, Captain Conklin noted, “Sandra is 70 years old, and a 200-pound chimpanzee is much, much stronger than a 200-pound human being.”
Ms. Herold called 911, grabbed a knife and stabbed Travis several times, to little avail. When emergency service vehicles pulled up, Travis fled, leaving Ms. Nash face down in the driveway.
One team of officers combed the woods for Travis, while another formed a protective cordon around the paramedics ministering to Ms. Nash, who Captain Ackley said also suffered multiple broken bones.
After a while, Captain Conklin said, Travis returned and “went after the officers.” He knocked a mirror off the passenger’s side of a police cruiser with one swing of his arm, then ran around to the driver’s side, opened the door and attacked the officer in the driver’s seat.
“He’s trapped in his car,” Captain Conklin said. “He has nowhere to go. So he pulls his sidearm and shoots the chimp several times in close proximity.” Travis then disappeared into the woods.
The officer, whose name was not released, was treated for trauma. Ms. Herold was not seriously injured but was hospitalized.
Eventually officers picked up a blood trail, which they followed back to the house. There they found Travis in his living quarters, a caged-in area with a bed and other furnishings of comfortable captivity. He was dead.
Captain Conklin said that charges against Ms. Herold were unlikely.
“We’ll certainly speak to the experts and the prosecutors,” he said, “but we truly hope that there are no charges. It’s a modern-day tragedy.”