Chimps in our homes: risks, responsibilities, repercussions

How do we weigh personal risk-taking versus our responsibility to society? When do we decide that the risks are substantial enough to go beyond personal liability and we have to make new laws, state or federal laws?

Why make new laws, when existing laws are perfectly reasonable, and have been blatantly ignored? These are a few of the questions that come to mind about the recent tragic news involving a pet chimpanzee who gravely injured a friend of his owner.

chimp-travis-90221 Susan Herold, 70, a Connecticut woman, kept 15 year old Travis the chimpanzee as a pet. Herold purchased Travis as a baby, and raised him as if he were a child. Travis grew to 200 lbs; he accompanied his owner on car rides, ate and drank wine at the dinner table, played in the household, and slept in bed with his owner, according to news reports. Herold apparently lived in a residential neighborhood, and from what I can tell, on a lot. This wasn’t a remote ranch larger acreage suitable to facilities to keep larger animals, and certainly no place for a chimp to play outside, unrestrained, untrained or improperly trained. Connecticut laws prohibited any primate over 50lbs to be kept as pet.

On this spring day, Travis got loose and Herold called a friend to help lure Travis back. Charla Nash, who was acquianted with Travis, came to the rescue. She had a new haircut, and a large toy wich she held in front of her face, presumably to bribe Travis to come be caught. As Nash got our of her car, Travis attacked and mauled her face. Herold called 911 then started stabbing Travis in an attemp to stop the attack. Eventually, police shot Travis. Charla Nash is still in intensive care.

At least two ape specialists warned about how Travis was managed. LATimes reported that

April Truitt, who runs the Primate Rescue Center in Lexington, Kentucky, has said she pleaded with Sandra Herold to send Travis the chimpanzee to her sanctuary and warned her about the dangers of keeping a chimp as a pet.
“You don’t know my Travis,” was Herold’s response, according to Truitt

A biologist on staff with the Department of Environmental Protection wrote a two page memo and forwarded it to the agency’s agency’s Bureau of Natural Resources in October, about 5 months before the attack. AP reports,

In the memo, the biologist said Herold’s possession of the chimpanzee clearly violated an existing law that prohibits someone from owning a primate that weighs more than 50 pounds at maturity.
The biologist suggested sending a letter to Herold and informing her of the violation and giving her options on how to comply with state law.
The biologist also raised the possibilities of allowing Herold to keep the animal, but in a stronger enclosure; issuing Herold a permit, which the biologist admitted would be “irresponsible”; giving Herold the choice to relocate Travis; and contacting local police to see if a chimp is permitted by local zoning laws.
The memo also suggested having Travis tranquilized and removed from the home, but the biologist said, “This would be extremely traumatic for everyone involved and riddled with problems.

This biologist remains unnamed. I support his recomandations — let’s not forbid pet ownership, not even exotic animal ownership. But clearly, regulations and education are needed to ensure the safety of all.

So what type of education do I think is needed ? Owners need to have knowledge, both intelectualy and hands-on, specific to the species they are considering as pets. Owners of all types of pets and livestock or farm animals living in or close to family often could use more motivation to educate themselves about training, along with basics of how to make living together joyful and safe. That includes those who own toy dogs or small birds, as well as those who choose exotics. There are about 250 chimpanzees kept as pets in the US. I’m amazed that there aren’t more incidents serious enough to warrant national media coverage.

The Travis tragedy inspired a quick response from lawmakers. The Hartford Courant reports,

The U.S. House approved legislation Tuesday that would ban private ownership of primates as pets. The Senate is expected also to consider the proposal, which is supported by a variety of organizations including the Humane Society of the United States.

“Pet primates are ticking time bombs in our communities,” Humane Society official Michael Markarian said. “Along with the attack risk evident from this incident, primates can spread deadly diseases, and the average pet owner cannot meet their basic needs in captivity.” [ … ]

Primates, alligators, kangaroos, wolverines and other types of wild and potentially dangerous animals would be banned from private homes under a state law announced Friday.

“We are playing Russian roulette in our homes because we have put dangerous animals in them,” Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said Friday while announcing the bill.

“The simple truth is wild animals belong in the wild, not in suburban homes,” he said.

Really? What “wild?” There is no wilderness left for animal species, of whom 1/3 are extinct or critically endangered. I’m not advocating keeping exotics – even local wild animals – as pets. But I am against an overreaching law that would make it impossible, or very difficult, for an individual to own and train animals other than dogs and cats and other domestics.

I’m new at this so will post this to test how it appears, but have to edit it later.


Barnett, Lindsay, Connecticut biologist raised red flag about Travis the chimp months before his attack, LATimes, March 20, 2009

Haigh, Susan, Conn. biologist voiced concerns about chimp, AP

Hartford Courant Staff Report, Chimpanzee Involved In Stamford Attack Cremated, February 26, 2009,0,6811253.story


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