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Slain chimp's owner now says it wasn't on Xanax

Thursday, February 19, 2009

STAMFORD, Conn. -- As authorities considered criminal charges, the woman whose 200-pound domesticated chimpanzee mauled a friend backtracked Wednesday on whether she gave the animal the anti-anxiety drug Xanax.

Sandra Herold said Wednesday she never gave the drug to her 14-year-old chimp, Travis, who was shot dead by Stamford police Monday after he grievously wounded Herold's friend Charla Nash.

However, Herold said in an interview aired Wednesday morning on NBC's "Today" show that she gave Travis the drug in some tea less than five minutes before he attacked Nash -- she even showed a reporter the mug. Police have said Herold told them she gave Travis Xanax that had not been prescribed for him earlier Monday to calm him because he was agitated.

In humans, Xanax can lead to aggression in people who are unstable to begin with, said Dr. Emil Coccaro, chief of psychiatry at the University of Chicago Medical Center.

"Xanax could have made him worse," if human studies are any indication, Coccaro said.

The chimpanzee's rampage forced Herold to stab her beloved pet with a butcher knife and pound him with a shovel.

"For me to do something like that -- put a knife in him -- was like putting one in myself," she said Wednesday. "Then he turned around and like, 'Mom, what did you do?'"

Herold's voice was filled with fear and horror in 911 tapes released by police Tuesday night.

Travis can be heard grunting as she cries for help: "He's killing my friend!"

The dispatcher says, "Who's killing your friend?"

Herold replies, "My chimpanzee! He ripped her apart! Shoot him, shoot him!"

After police arrived, one officer radioed back: "There's a man down. He doesn't look good," he says, referring to the disfigured Nash. "We've got to get this guy out of here. He's got no face."

Doctors at Stamford Hospital said Wednesday that it took four teams of surgeons more than seven hours to stabilize Nash, 55. Hand specialists, plastic surgeons and specialists in orthopedics, ophthalmology and trauma have treated Nash, who has made slight progress but remained in critical condition, Dr. Kevin Miller said at a news conference with the victim's family.

Nash's brother, Mike Nash, did not take questions from reporters but said the family is grateful for community support it has received.

"It should be known that people who were complete strangers to us prior to this have selflessly offered their assistance to our family," he said. "We are eternally grateful to them and to all of you who are keeping Charla in your thoughts and wishing her well."

Police have said they are looking into the possibility of criminal charges. A pet owner who knew or should have known that an animal was a danger to others can be held criminally responsible.

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said Wednesday that a defect in Connecticut's laws allowed Herold to keep the chimp in her home, probably illegally. There are rules requiring large primates to be registered by the state, but officials have some discretion in enforcing them and violations carry only minor penalties, he said.

"This animal probably was illegally kept, so far as that statute is concerned," Blumenthal said. "Clearly, some kind of permission was necessary for this animal to be at that residence."

Herold, a 70-year-old widow whose daughter was killed in a car accident several years ago, told the AP the chimp "was my life" and that she "never, never, never" gave it Xanax. "He never had anything but love."

Herold speculated that Travis was being protective of her when he attacked Nash, who she said was driving a different car, wearing a new hairstyle and holding an Elmo stuffed toy in front of her face as a present to the chimp.

"She had the toy in front of her. This was just a freak thing," Herold said.

Herrold said Nash is a close friend who traveled with her to a Connecticut casino on Valentine's Day.

"It was the most horrible thing that could ever happen," she said.

Authorities are trying to determine why the chimp, a veteran of TV commercials who could dress himself, drink wine from a glass and use the toilet, suddenly attacked. A test for rabies was negative, Stamford police Capt. Richard Conklin said Wednesday.

Nash had gone to Herold's home in Stamford on Monday to help her coax the chimp back into the house after he got out, police said. After the animal lunged at Nash when she got out of her car, Herold ran inside to call 911 and returned with a knife.

After the initial attack, Travis ran away and started roaming Herold's property. An officer shot the chimp several times after it opened the door to his cruiser and started to get in.

Travis appeared in TV commercials for Old Navy and Coca-Cola when he was younger, and at home he was treated like a member of the family. Don Mecca, a family friend from Colchester, N.Y., said Herold fed the chimp steak, lobster, ice cream and Italian food.

Primate experts say chimpanzees are unpredictable and dangerous even after living among humans for years, but in her "Today" interview, Herold rejected criticism that they are inappropriate pets.

"It's a horrible thing, but I'm not a horrible person and he's not a horrible chimp." she said.

Connecticut law requires primates weighing more than 50 pounds to be registered with the state. But state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Dennis Schain said Herold's chimp was exempted because it did not appear to present a public health risk and was owned before the registration requirement began.

Blumenthal, the attorney general, sent letters to legislative leaders and DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy, asking them to support a proposed law that would ban all potentially dangerous exotic animals, such as chimpanzees, crocodiles and poisonous snakes, from being kept in a residential setting in Connecticut.

McCarthy is seeking a similar law banning large primates. Her agency is also asking the public, police officers and animal control officers who are aware of large primates being kept as pets to report the animals to the agency.


Associated Press writers Susan Haigh in Hartford and Ted Shaffrey in Stamford contributed to this report.


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