Last updated on January 3rd, 2023 at 04:51 am
On October 24, 1995, when Sandra bought Travis for $50,000 from Braun Casey’s home, everyone wondered what motivated her interest in a 3-day-old chimp.
As time passed, it became clear that while everyone else saw a chimp, Sandra Herold saw a boy.
So she raised Travis like a human child, wearing his nappies, having him don the prettiest baby clothes, and teaching him to drive.
Travis’ fame as a happy and adventurous chimp spread so quickly that he became an animal actor appearing in several television and adverts, from Coca-Cola to Pepsi to the Man Show and Maury Povich Show.
But in 2009, Travis’ happy and friendly demeanor took a turn.
On the evening of February 16, 2009, Travis brutally attacked Charla Nash, a long-time friend of Sandra Herold, who watched helplessly as her “boy” tore her friend into shreds.
According to Sandra, Travis simply snapped at her friend. But what seemed like a familiar mischief degenerated into a fit of uncontrolled rage as Travis tore into her. And though Charla suffered unimaginable pain at the hand of this Chimp, she did not die.
Moments following this horrendous act of violence, Travis was shot by the authorities. But for Sandra and Charla, life would never be the same.
The question many are asking today is, what precisely is Travis’ story?
Travis the Chimp – Becoming a Herold
Travis was born to zoo chimps Suzy and Coco, imported from Africa to the U.S. in the 1970s. Sources say that Travis’ mother was shot dead while struggling to escape the Missouri Chimpanzee Sanctuary shortly after his birth.
Science confirms that the chimps stay with their mothers, feeding on their breast milk until age five. They then hang around to nurture their younger siblings as they build a close family unit.
But Travis did not enjoy that luxury, as in October 1995, he was taken in by Sandra Herold and her husband Jerry, who planned to raise him as their son. For the most part, he was placed in a cot in the bedroom, and weeks later, he slept in their bed. Sandra fed him formula milk in a bottle.
Sandra and Jerry had just lost their daughter Susan in 2000, which probably explains the weight of the love showered on Travis. Yet, even after Travis’ attack, Sandra was found to have said that Travis couldn’t be more her son than if she had given birth to him.
The old couple adapted their house in Stanford into a safe playground for their hairy Chimp. Travis was growing up pretty fast and had already begun to enjoy basic human privileges like wearing clothes, watching T.V., and using the toilets.
The older he grew, the more he adapted to a life far from what his species should naturally live.
Travis could dress himself, brush his teeth, feed Jerry’s horses hay, and water plants. He grew so fond of ice cream that he studied the schedule of ice cream trucks and when they passed by their house.
Travis could use a computer, watch television, use the remote control, and particularly enjoyed watching baseball. Sometimes, he was allowed into the kitchen to mix his own drinks and warm up ready meals and snacks in the microwave.
He always seemed happy and energetic, especially when he drove around on a lawn mower or went on random evening outings with Jerry around Stanford, where he would ride shotgun or sometimes accompany his ‘dad’ to his tow truck shop.
Sandy claimed Travis could drive and had, on some occasions, stolen her car keys to zoom off in search of some adventure. A neighbor once claimed to play around and wrestle with Travis, which was deemed safe. After all, Travis knew when to stop and showed no signs of violence.
First Hints of Violence
However, an incident in 2003 hinted at the scale of damage a chimp could cause. One day in October 2003, Travis jumped out of the Herolds’ car, holding up traffic as he went loose for several hours. But it wasn’t unhinged.
It was reported that a pedestrian threw an empty soda can at the car, but it went through the partially open window and hit Travis as they stopped near a traffic light.
Attempting to retaliate, Travis opened the car door and chased the man to no avail. The police soon arrived and lured Travis into the car, but he let himself out each time, sometimes chasing the police officers around the car.
It seemed like he was playing in traffic and was merely monkeying around, but the state of Connecticut didn’t see it as such. The incident inspired the Connecticut legislature to pass a law prohibiting residents from keeping primates weighing over 50 pounds or 23kg as pets.
It required such exotic pet owners to apply for permits in any case. Nevertheless, sources claim that the Department of Environmental Protection didn’t consider Travis a public safety risk at the time.
In the following year, Jerry Herold died from cancer, which was when things took a different turn for the Herolds. After a long bout of mourning, Sandy developed worries about what would happen to their Chimp if she also died.
So she wrote to a sanctuary asking them to take her son. At this point, Travis had grown obese, and Sandra was finding it difficult to deal with him alone. She also observed that Travis acted strangely at night, which explains why she never sent the last two paragraphs of her letter.
The letter reads that the 45 years Sandra had spent with Jerry had left such a vacuum that she and Travis missed him each minute. She highlighted how much Travis, in particular, felt his absence as he waited for Jerry at dinner time.
Sandra recollected how Travis would sit by the bedroom window many nights, looking out and returning happy before retiring to bed. She also claimed to have set up a trust fund for Travis but considered it wasn’t enough, and she felt he needed to play with one of his own kind and have the best life if she was no longer alive to cater to him.
However, Travis remained with Sandra.
The Attack on Charla Nash
As time passed, Travis became somewhat unpredictable. She had noticed that his usual pastime, eating ice cream, watching T.V., playing with his pet cat, Misty, and doing art no longer interested him.
On February 16, 2009, out of worry, she gave him a cup of tea that had Xanax in it. Xanax is a medication used to treat panic and anxiety disorders, and Sandra hoped it would help regulate Travis’ mood. Sources agree that Sandra was quite dodgy on whether she had given the Chimp a human-grade drug. She later confirmed that Travis was on medication for a tick-borne illness called Lyme disease.
A few minutes later, Travis got into his usual fits. This time, he had stolen Sandra’s car keys and escaped the house. Having run out of options, Sandra called her friend Charla to come to her aid.
By 3:40 pm, she had arrived, ready to help her friend, But Travis, who was not in his usual friendly demeanor, approached Sandra with a menacing gait, threw her against her car, pounced on her, and he groped for her face.
Horrified, Sandra wobbled between the duo, trying to separate them somehow, but when it dawned on her how much damage Travis had caused, she merely huddled around them.
At the risk of being the next target, she grabbed a shovel and hit him, but Travis didn’t halt his deadly assault on the 50-year-old.
Sandra claimed to have taken a knife and stabbed the Chimp who responded. But he only stared at her as if to say, “Mother, what are you doing this?” But didn’t last long as Travis shifted his attention back to Charla.
By then, Sandra had already escaped inside her car, locking herself and calling the police. By the time the police arrived, Charla’s face and limbs had become the stuff of horror films, half-shred and almost torn apart.
Travis launched at one of the police patrol cars, lunging for an officer who shot him four times, point blank. But Travis survived, running off, leaving a blood trail, and escaping into the house. He collapsed on his special bed, and there he died.
An NBC reporter once asked Sandy if, after all she had been through, her friend fighting for her life in the hospital, she still thinks chimps should be pets.
She replied that she would do it again, as chimps are the closest things to human beings. She adds that humans can give chimps a blood transfusion, and chimps can as well. Finally, she asks how many humans go crazy and kill other people. Travis wasn’t a horrible chimp, and it was simply an incident she didn’t know what had happened.
A year and a quarter later, Sandy died from an aneurysm and was buried between two urns. One belonged to her daughter, and the other to her “son,” Travis the Chimp.
Travis the Chimp’s Legacy
The story of Travis the Chimp spread as far east as China. Scholars began to research possible parallels in history. They found that four years before the incident, there had been a similar chimpanzee attack in California.
This ignited front-burner debates and conversations on the logic of keeping exotic yet potentially dangerous pets, led mainly by primatologists Frans de Waal and Jane Goodall.
The plot of Travis’ escape and attack on Charla were part of the Chimps episode in the 2010 docuseries Fatal Attractions, and sounds from Sandra’s call to 911 and the police shooting of Travis and the hunt were used as well.
A bill to add lemurs, monkeys, and great apes as prohibited wildlife species that no one can sell or purchase through interstate and foreign sales never saw the light of day. But legislatures worldwide have become more intentional about domestic primates and their owners’ liability to victims.
Till her death, Sandra loved Travis and would happily take him in again if the chance presented itself. But perhaps, this makes the story all the more strange – how an otherwise friendly neighborhood chimp degenerated into a rabid monster in a single day after 14 years of living among humans. The truth, the story, the search continues.