“He’s eating her!” screamed Sandra Herold – the chimp’s owner – as she spoke to 911. A few feet away from her, a scene of horror played on her retina: her chimp, Travis, was tearing apart her friend Charla Nash. He ripped off her face and hands in one attack. She, who survived, ended up blind, without hands and had to receive a face transplant. The event, which occurred in 2009, still sends chills down the spine of those who remember it.
The woman whose face and hands were torn off by a chimpanzee in a frenzied attack
The hominid primate came into Herold’s life when she was only three days old, in 1995. As journalist Dan P. Lee recounts in the article Travis the Menace, published in New York Magazine in 2011, the woman had paid $50,000 to a chimpanzee farm in St. Louis – Missouri – to give her the animal, then just a baby.
Sandy, as Sandra was known, lived in Stamford, with her husband Jerome. They both owned a vehicle towing company and had adapted their home so that Travis could live with them.
In a past interview with NBC’s “Today” show, Herold implied that she had raised the chimpanzee as if he were her own child: he had learned to use the toilet, brush his teeth and dress himself. He also surfed the web by looking at pictures, knew how to use the TV remote to change the channel and drank wine from a crystal glass.
“I would buy him everything: filet mignon, lobster tails, Lindt chocolate. He was able to open doors by himself. He could drive. He drove off with the car a couple of times,” Sandy told Today in 2009. Travis was forced to behave like a human being, even though he wasn’t one.
In the town of Stamford, he became famous: neighbors would ask him for pictures when they went to the towing business. He even appeared in television commercials for Coca Cola and Old Navy, among others.
Herold suffered two misfortunes before the bombing. In 2000, his only daughter, Suzan, was killed in a car accident. Four years later, Jerome died at age 65 of cancer. She was left alone with the animal.
In 2003, Travis was involved in an incident that did not escalate: a person threw something at the car in which he was traveling with his family. The object went through the car window, which was partially open, and hit the chimpanzee. The mammal unbuckled its seat belt, opened the car door and chased the man, but did not catch up with him.
The day of the attack
On February 16, 2009, in the afternoon, Travis appeared euphoric, Sandy testified. At that time, he stole the car keys from his human “mom” and went out into the yard. The woman watched the animal’s movements as she spoke on the phone with Charla Nash, a friend and employee of the Herolds.
The then Stamford/Norwalk judicial district attorney, David I. Cohen, stated in a statement posted on the Connecticut Division of Criminal Justice website that Nash offered to help Herold: they wanted the chimpanzee back in the house.
Before Nash arrived at the house, Sandy managed to catch Travis. And, in her words, she fed him a tea containing Xanax pills – alprazolam, the generic name for the anxiolytic.
Later that day, her friend got into her car and drove to her property. When she pulled into the driveway and got out of the car, she encountered the 200-pound primate: it soon pounced on her.
The owner, who realized what was happening, approached her to try to avoid a tragedy. The animal, with its powerful teeth, began to tear Nash’s hands off. And it bit Nash’s nose, eyes, lips and eyelids.
Sandy grabbed a butcher knife and stabbed Travis three times. However, she failed to stop him. Desperate, she called the police.
“He’s eating her!” she repeated in communication with an operator. “He’s killing my friend!” she then warned. “Who is killing your friend?” she was consulted. “The chimpanzee, my chimpanzee! He’s torn her apart! Hurry! Hurry! Please!” she replied.
The rampant attack lasted 12 minutes, eternal for the victim. When the police arrived, Travis, who was unhinged, approached the car, opened the door and attacked one of them.
“He shows his teeth, makes a growl and I see blood. I see his fangs. I start shooting,” recalls officer Frank Chiafari in conversation with The New York Times. The man fired four shots with his gun: Travis, who was hit, ran into his house and fell dead there.