Charla Nash and Travis Herold: Surviving a Chimpanzee Attack

Two-thirds of American households own a pet, most commonly dogs, cats, and fish. A small percentage of pet owners, though, have more exotic tastes and take in less common animals, such as tigers or peacocks.

One such family was Sandra and Jerome Herold, who in 2001 adopted a chimpanzee from a Missouri compound. They named him Travis after Travis Tritt, Sandra’s favorite singer.

Although chimpanzees are abnormal pets, that is not what would make Travis famous. Instead, his legacy would revolve around a tragic and violent incident with one of Sandra’s friends. 

Travis Herold’s Life

Travis was born at what is now named the Missouri Chimpanzee Sanctuary in October of 1995. He was adopted with a fee of $50,000 at just three days old by the Herold couple from Stamford, Connecticut.

In an unrelated incident, Travis’ mother Suzy would be killed in 2001 when she attempted to escape the sanctuary. Her death could later be seen as a foreshadowing of the violence that Travis would display. 

But for over ten years, Travis would be a loyal and loving member of the Herold family. He would accompany the couple into town on errands and would help around the house.

He learned how to open, close, and lock doors, water plants, and would socialize with his adoptive parents and their neighbors. In nearly every way short of speaking, Travis became the Herold’s child.

This sentiment reached its peak for Sandra by 2005, after losing her only child in 2000. For the next few years,  she struggled to maintain contact with the outside world, including her grandchildren.

Then in 2005, Jerome passed away which was difficult for both Sandra and Travis. Sandra recalls Travis waiting at dinner time for Jerome to enter and eat with the family. With only each other, they became a closer family than ever. 

Charla Nash’s Life

A friend of the family who had lost touch with Sandra in the first half of the 2000s, Charla Nash reconnected with Sandra shortly after the death of Jerome.

Nash and her daughter had been struggling. Nash was taking odd jobs and doing manual labor to get by. During this time, they were forced to stay in a homeless shelter.

After reconnecting, Sandra offered them a place to live in her deceased daughter’s old apartment and a job working for her towing company. They were immensely grateful and once again became close friends with Sandra and Travis, as Nash commonly would visit. 

A photo of Charla before the attack. Image: Splash News/NBC

The Tragic Incident

February 16, 2009, would be the date that Travis and Charla became inextricably linked. Nash was visiting Sandra because she had noticed that Travis was irritated. She asked for help in bringing him back inside.

Sandra had given Travis Xanax in some tea to calm him down, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. Travis had taken Sandra’s keys and went out into the yard, and the two women followed him.

Charla with Travis before the attack.

Nash followed with one of his favorite toys, a Tickle Me Elmo, to bring him inside. Seeing her with it made Travis fly into a rage though and he attacked Nash.

In an attempt to defend her, Sandra hit Travis with a shovel and stabbed him in the back with a knife twice. With a look of almost betrayal, Travis turned to her and Sandra fled to her car where she locked herself inside, calling 9-1-1.

Emergency medical personnel arrived first, but fearing the chimpanzee, they held back until police arrived. Once they did, Travis attacked the police cruiser, which led Officer Frank Chiafari to shoot him four times in the chest.

The chimpanzee fled back inside, where he was found dead next to his crate. 

The Long Road to Recovery

Everyone assumed that Travis had killed Nash, but as police approached her body she reached out for help. Bits of her flesh littered the yard, as Travis had ripped off parts of her scalp, face, and both hands.

She had an inconceivable amount of damage done to her body and doctors faced a massive challenge in treating her. After over seven hours of surgery and millions of dollars in medical procedures, Nash was able to return to a sense of almost normalcy.

She received a face transplant, and although she originally received hand transplants, they needed to be removed when she developed pneumonia. Unfortunately, doctors were unable to recover her sight, but Nash is lucky to be alive.

Charla’s scars after many surgeries on her road to healing

She sued Sandra and attempted to sue many others concerning the incident to help her pay for the medical bills. She received only a portion of what she asked for. 

The tragedy also raised questions about the ownership of exotic animals as pets. Sandra Herold’s decision to keep a chimpanzee as a domesticated companion highlighted the potential dangers associated with the ownership of wild animals, even when seemingly raised in a human environment.

Other incidents of Travis’ troubling behavior began to emerge. This included one instance where he escaped for a few hours which led the state to ban the adoption of chimpanzees over 50 pounds. 

Charla Nash faced agony unlike nearly anyone else has ever faced and survived. She was incredibly lucky to remain alive and receive the medical attention needed to continue her life. The procedures they pioneered with her treatment would go on to help many others with tragic injuries. 


Associated Press, “Chimp attack victim who received face transplant sees rejection five years later.” The Guardian, May 4, 2016.

Gallman, Stephanie. “Chimp attack victim appeals to legislators for permission to sue Connecticut.” CNN, March 19, 2014.

Lavender, Jane. “Horrifying injuries of woman who had face and hands ripped off by pet chimp – and survived.” The Mirror, May 22, 2020.

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