Travis the chimpanzee was a beloved animal actor. Then he almost killed someone.

Travis the chimpanzee had a traumatic start to life - and sadly, that was the way his life ended too.

Born in a chimpanzee sanctuary on October 21, 1995, Travis was taken from his mother, Suzy, when he was just three days old. Known for their close-knit sense of community and family, this would have been very distressing for the young primate and his mother.

Later, in 2001, Suzy was shot and killed trying to escape the sanctuary.

Travis was sold for $50,000 to married couple Jerome and Sandra Herold. They named him Travis after Sandra's favourite singer, Travis Tritt, and they treated the young chimpanzee as though he was one of their children (the Herolds also had a daughter).

Raised by humans, Travis likely thought he was a human too. He play-wrestled with the family, ate with them, brushed his teeth, dressed himself, watched TV, and opened doors. He reportedly drank wine and loved ice-cream. He knew how to log onto the computer and, remarkably, knew how to drive as well.

Being so clever, friendly, and socialised, Travis also appeared in a number of television shows like The Maury Povich Show and The Man Show, and in advertisements, including several spots for Coca-Cola.

Travis in a commercial. Image: New York Magazine.


The chimpanzee became a bit of a celebrity in his hometown of Stamford, Connecticut. The Herolds would take him everywhere, even to work, and people near and far would stop to take pictures with him, touch him, and talk about him.

Those were the happiest years of Sandra's life. But after her daughter, Sue, died in a car accident in 2000, followed by Jerome's death just four years later from cancer, Sandra drew all her comfort from Travis. They did everything together; even bathing and sleeping in the same bed.

Only one incident marred an otherwise unblemished record when it came to Travis. In 2003, a man threw rubbish at Travis while the chimpanzee was in the Herolds' car, which caused Travis to undo his seatbelt and chase after the man. Police officers tried to get Travis in their car, but he escaped and chased after them too.


Afterwards, the state passed a law prohibiting primates over 50 pounds to be kept as pets and requiring owners to have permits for the animal. Travis was exempt because he was known to police, who believed he wouldn't hurt anyone, and because he had been with the Herolds for so long.

Six years later, on February 16, 2009, the unthinkable happened - Travis attacked and almost killed Sandra's friend, Charla Nash. What made the tragic incident even more incomprehensible was that Charla had visited Sandra's home many times before and had interacted with Travis on numerous occasions. All of them were friends.

On that February morning, Travis had ran out of the house with Sandra's car keys. Charla had popped over for a visit, and, trying to help bring him back into the house, she held out Travis' favourite toy, an Elmo doll, to him. Travis stared at Charla for a long time. Some have speculated that the recent change to her hairstyle made the chimpanzee confused. He was also found later to have Xanax in his system.

Whatever the reason, Travis rushed to Charla and attacked her. 

Sandra watched in horror as the attack unfolded. She grabbed a spade and began hitting Travis with it, to no avail. She then grabbed a knife and stabbed him in the back. Sandra said in her testimony later that stabbing the chimpanzee felt as though she had stabbed herself.


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Nothing Sandra could do would get him to stop attacking Charla. She called 911, screaming that Travis was killing her friend. When the medical team arrived, they could not help Charla immediately because they risked being attacked themselves.

When the police arrived, Travis tried to get into the officer's car, but it was locked. He smashed a window to get in, and an officer fired at him, shooting Travis several times. 

The chimpanzee limped back to the house he had called his home, went back into his cage, and died.

Charla required many hours of surgery and several months of rehabilitation after the attack. Travis had bitten her nose, jaw, eyes, lips, hands, and scalp. He had broken almost all the bones in her face. As a result, Charla was blinded and both her hands had to be amputated.

Her injuries made Charla the "perfect candidate" for radical facial reconstruction surgery, which she would undergo in the years following the attack. In November 2009, months after Travis mauled her, Charla appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to talk about what had happened and how she was coping. She told Oprah she was not in pain.

In May 2010, just 15 months after the attack, Sandra died suddenly of a ruptured aortic aneurysm. Her lawyer released a statement after her death: "Mrs Herold had suffered a series of heartbreaking losses over the last several years, beginning with the death of her first and only daughter who was killed in a car accident, then her husband, then her beloved chimp Travis, as well as the tragic maiming of friend and employee Charla Nash. In the end, her heart, which had been broken so many times before, could take no more."


Charla had begun lawsuit proceedings by that time - to the tune of $50 million. In 2012, the lawsuit was settled for $4 million. Charla also tried to sue the state, claiming they knew Travis was dangerous, but her claim was denied.

As a result of the incident, the Captive Primate Safety Act was initiated, which was supported by the US Humane Society and the Wildlife Conservation Society, and sought to prohibit primates like chimpanzees, monkeys and lemurs being sold as pets. Yet, the bill was not passed in the US Senate.

The officer who shot and ultimately killed Travis struggled with anxiety and depression afterwards. A bill calling for mental health care for police officers who were forced to kill pets and animals succeeded in becoming policy.

The legacy of Travis and what transpired opened up a discussion about primate care, breeding and selling exotic animals, pet ownership, and the responsibility of owners. It's a discussion that is still being held today, some 14 years after the tragic end of Travis the chimpanzee.

Feature Image: CNN.

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