The Tragedy of Travis the Chimp

Travis the chimpanzee, late of Stamford, Connecticut, is all over the news this week due to the shocking attack on his owner Sandra Herold’s friend Charla Nash, who is currently fighting for her life.  MSNBC has an excellent in-depth report on the incident.

Pete Wedderburn of the Telegraph UK asks “What part of wild do the owners not understand?”

TravisthechimpI honestly don’t know why people who keep wild animals as pets think that it’s safe, or what rationalizations they give themselves to justify that such arrangements are  appropriate.

Travis, by all accounts, was raised as a human child by Sandra Herold, whose own story is very sad.  Sandra lost her husband in 2004 and her daughter also died in an auto crash, so she was alone — except for Travis.

Sandra ate meals with Travis, watched television with him, and even shared aperitifs with him in stemmed glasses.  Before Travis attacked her friend, he had been out of sorts — apparently he even had a human disease:  Lyme Disease.

So, Sandra had called her friend Charla for some help, and Charla had driven over, getting out the car with an unfortunate combination of appearance and behavior that might yet cost her life — it has already cost her face, one hand, and four fingers of another hand.  According to some reports, Travis tore off Charla’s jaw and ripped out her eyes in mauling her entire head.  Shrinkwrapped has an interesting take on the situation, pointing up that Al Qaeda manuals contain torture instructions that mirror what Travis did to Charla in his attack.

Everyone should know by now that adult chimpanzees, while short in stature, are as heavy or heavier than many humans (Travis, at age 14, weighed 200 pounds). JGordon at Science Buzz talks about just how strong chimpanzees are. On average, chimps are 5 to 7 times stronger than humans, no matter how much they weigh, and Travis was much larger than the average chimp at 200 pounds.

Where did Travis come from in the first place?  In other words, if you were like Sandra Herold and her deceased husband, where would you go looking to buy a chimpanzee baby to raise like a member of your family?  Wired reports that you can just buy them online, although eBay has shut down auctions of endangered animals (and chimpanzees are endangered).  Chimps are usually hunted down in the wild by poachers, who kill the mothers and take the babies for exactly the purpose above.  They are smuggled to the West or Asia, where wealthy buyers will eagerly snap them up.  Travis’ story highlights these brutal practices.  No one has reported where he originally came from, but zoos do not auction off their baby chimps to the highest bidder.  The many chimpanzee sanctuaries exist to try to provide humane homes for chimps that were raised as human children until they grew up, becoming large, frightening and uncontrollable.  Sandra Herold isn’t the first such owner to be in denial about her pet’s true nature.  St. James Davis and his wife learned to their horror that their 30 year old chimp Moe, who had to be given to a sanctuary after he bit one of their friends, had other chimp friends who were willing to nearly fatally attack St. James over a birthday cake.

People often mention chimp rage in these discussions.  Jane Goodall and many others, studying chimps in the wild, have pointed up their many similarities to humans, as well as many differences.  In one similarity, chimpanzees have a degree of self-awareness.  They are aware of themselves as individuals, and they form family groups.  Mothers grieve for the loss of their young ones, and they form friendships with each other, as well as make enemies.  Chimpanzee tribes war on each other in the wild, and they sometimes practice cannibalism.  The human attacks mirror the way that chimps in the wild attack prey such as colobus monkeys — or, in times of chimp war or murder, each other.

4chimp-for-sale-1996 Isn’t this chimp held captive at a Zaire market adorable?  His mother was probably murdered by poachers, and he will be sold for a small amount of money – this picture was taken in 1996.  Around the same time, Travis was probably taken from the wild in a similar way, ending up in Stamford, Connecticut.

Is it any wonder that as chimps grow older and become capable of attacking others, that they do so?  They are wild animals, entrapped, kept in horrible conditions, and shipped great distances, kept in captivity and forced to do unnatural things that they were not born to do.  All of the things that it was so “cute” that Travis did – not only wearing clothes, but dressing himself, using the toilet, eating at the dinner table (200 pounds means he must surely have been eating too much rich, human food and getting fat, just like a human), drinking wine from a stemmed glass, channel-surfing on TV and using a computer.

How cute!  How smart Travis was!  And how dead, Travis is – and as I type this, Charla Nash, the innocent victim, may yet lose her life, and she has already been horribly traumatized and disfigured.

When will these inhuman abuses stop?  I don’t know.

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The Tragedy of Travis the Chimp — 3 Comments

  1. Great, Brenda – I am really glad to hear they are moving forward. I can’t believe anybody would take an animal like this on as a “child” – because it is so obviously a wild animal belonging in its natural environment, not a human home. And the things that are done to these animals to make money off of them or to do research of very debatable use (and sometimes useless and pointless, period – no debate at all) is horrible.

  2. If you read the NY Times, go look at the Home section this week. There is an article about other people who have kept primates. One couple has renovated their entire home to accomodate them. En passant the husband mentioned that their baboon accidentally stuck a fingernail into his (the husband’s) scrotum. He sounded quite casual about this. The charms of primate pets really elude me.