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Experts not surprised by chimp's vicious attack

February 22, 2009 | Chimpanzees / Primarily Primates / Sanctuaries / Animals in Entertainment

Stamford Advocate

Apes' strength, aggression are cited as dangers
By Jeff Morganteen
STAFF WRITER
02/21/2009

Frans de Waal, a renowned primatologist and author, often studies the positive side of chimpanzee behavior: charity, reconciliation, cooperation.

But when de Waal heard of the vicious chimpanzee attack in Stamford last week that left a 55-year-old woman disfigured and possibly in need of a face transplant, it reminded him of the dark side of primates, the type of behavior displayed by warring groups of wild chimpanzees.

"It's typical of the attack on a stranger," said de Waal, a primate specialist and lead biologist at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center in Atlanta. "They go for the face, hands and genitals. They do all sorts of nasty things. They sometimes kill neighboring males."

A full-grown chimp's aggression and brute strength make for a disastrous combination if brought into a home as a pet.

For Sandra Herold, the 70-year-old Stamford woman whose pet almost killed a friend Monday, her 14-year-old chimpanzee, Travis, was a "time bomb," de Waal said, comparing him to a pet tiger. Outside Herold's North Stamford home, Travis mauled 55-year-old Charla Nash, almost killing the Stamford woman. Herold grabbed a butcher knife and stabbed Travis, whom she had raised as a son, but it didn't stop the chimp. A police officer had to shoot and kill Travis.

"I don't think any primatologist would recommend a chimpanzee as a pet," de Waal said. "We all know how strong they are."

Yet Sandra Herold has owned one for 14 years.

Travis became a mascot for her towing company. He drank wine and ate lobster and steak. He wore human clothes. It's a common story, primate experts said. People buy chimps as babies, dress them up and teach them to eat with silverware. But the chimps get too big, too aggressive and too strong.

When the chimps become teenagers, they often end up in sanctuaries such as Primarily Primates in San Antonio.

"The list of reasons that people have given go from 'I can't control the monkey' to 'He just started to bite' to 'He just attacked my neighbor,' " said Stephen Rene Tello, executive director of Primarily Primates, which cares for 330 primates, 63 of them chimpanzees.

Forty-seven of those chimps are from research facilities, and the rest are former pets or from the entertainment industry, Tello said. Because chimps live more than 45 years, the former pets often spend most of their lives in sanctuaries. They are products of the lucrative exotic pet trade, where baby chimps are sold for more than $40,000, said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, an international animal advocacy group based in Darien that manages Primarily Primates. "You can't make it right," Feral said of Monday's mauling. "Herold tried to extend freedom through all these other trappings. The clothes. The showers. The wine. We've had chimps arrive as alcoholics. That's how they kept their moods suppressed."

Potential pet owners often conduct little to no research into chimpanzees before buying them, Tello said. Some only watch chimps' comical and playful portrayal in movies and TV shows, then decide they want one, he said. Primate breeders often mislead buyers into thinking primates stay cute and controllable, Tello said.

"It's those kind of people who want the 'baby chimp' experience, where the chimp is almost a surrogate child, and they can pamper them," Tello said.

Feral said potential primate owners can buy spider monkeys for $8,000 on the Web.

"Owners arrive half of the time in tears because they made a huge financial investment, and it went up in smoke," Feral said.

Some chimps arrive at the sanctuary with severe psychological problems. Others even mutilate themselves out of pent-up rage and frustration, Feral said.

By the time they reach maturity, chimps are five times stronger than an adult man, de Waal said, and in captivity, they often learn and exploit this advantage. Cages are welded together at the Primarily Primates sanctuary because some chimps are strong enough to unfasten nuts and bolts, Tello said.

De Waal said chimpanzees that grow up as pets begin to consider themselves part human. Recalling experiments from the 1950s, de Waal said groups of chimps who had been raised as humans were asked to find themselves amid a group of photos; they often choose pictures of humans.

As for speculation whether the prescription drug Xanax may have caused Travis to attack Nash, de Waal said a violent outburst from the 14-year-old chimp was inevitable.

"One day he was going to explode," de Waal said. "A male chimp of that age was going to do something drastic anyway."

Comments

HOW ON EARTH DID A WOMAN OF HER STATURE EVER EXPECT TO STOP ANY TYPE OF ATTACK INVOLVING HER CHIMP - EVER!!! IF SHE KNEW ANYTHING AT ALL SHE HAD TO RECOGNIZE HER OWN PHYSICAL LIMITATIONS! I DON'T KNOW HOW SHE OBTAINED HER CHIMP ALL THOSE YEARS AGO; MAYBE SHE THOUGHT SHE WAS SAVING HIM. EITHER WAY, SHE MUST HAVE RESEARCHED THESE POWERFUL PRIMATES; NOT DOING SO WOULD BE CRIMINAL. I BELIEVE IT WAS HER OWN SELF DENIAL THAT PROPELLED THIS OUTCOME. IF YOU CAN NO LONGER MAINTAIN A SAFE ENVIRONMENT FOR BOTH CHIMP AND HUMAN IT IS ESSENTIAL TO GET SOMEONE WHO CAN. THE VICTIM SHE IS SCARRED FOR LIFE AND NOTHING CAN FIX THAT. MY ONLY QUESTION IS WHAT CAUSED HER TO EVER THINK HER (55 YR. OLD) FRIEND COULD HANDLE THE STRENGTH OF FIVE MEN? THIS IS NOT TO BE CRUEL THIS QUESTION BUT DIDN'T YOU EVER HAVE DOUBTS ABOUT THIS ANIMAL? [Blog editors' note: The chimpanzee was purchased from a breeding operation in Missouri -- likely for $30,000 or more. Chimpanzees and other wild animals are not our pets or surrogate children, and are entitled to their own lives -- rather than forced to be an extension of ours. ]

I just learned that Congress passed the Captive Primate Safety Act which would stop interstate commerce in Primates as Pets. I imagine this bill will now go to the Senate for a vote, Does Friends of Animals know if this is correct? [Blog editors' note: That's correct. What's not correct is the statistic of 20 or so states that supposedly have regs or laws that prohibit the possession of primates as pets. We haven't seen substantiation for that claim. Connecticut was listed on one group's fact sheet as having banned the holding of primates as pets. Wrong. When a companion bill is created in the Senate, there will be a vote. If passed, interstate commerce of primates for the pet trade will be prohibited, but primates will still travel from state-to-state to research, zoos, santuaries and the awful Helping Hands program that uses capuchin monkeys to fetch things for some paralyzed people. Not sure how the Captive Primate Safety Act will be enforced. In some states where there's a prohibition on possession primates as pets, such as New Hampshire, we learned that households can keep the primates if they acquired them prior to 1992, and permits are issued. Very flawed bans full of loopholes.]

ITS A SHAME TRAVIS HAD TO DIE, THEY SAY SIGNS WHERE THERE,BUT ANY ANIMAL LOVER KNOWS..SOMETIMESIT'S HARD TO MAKE THE RIGHT CHOICE WHEN YOU LOVE THE ANIMAL SOOO MUCH. MY CHOICE'S HAVE ONLY BEEN WITH DOG'S AND KNOW HOW INTENSE THE FEELINGS CAN BE.

Man, I dont know what to say about this all I can say is that it for sure isn't right to have any kind of wild animal in your home. I understand that monkeys are cute heck i'd like to have one but that doesn't mean i'm going to go out and buy me one. There is no reason for a person to have a wild animal like that as a pet. We may not be able to teach out dogs and cats how to eat with spoons and forks but they aren't people they don't need to know that kind of stuff it's not what they are here for!! When you get a animal you get a animal you get one for its love and thats it your not suppose to raise a primate as a human being that you care for!!! Its just not suppose to be like that if God wanted animals to be able to do those kind of things then he would of made all animals have hands and feet just like us. It's just not suppose to be like that when people will learn? Maybe in Herolds case after a friend gets mawled!!!! Dumb!!! Do you want to see your friend get mawled by your pet no no one wants to see that tragedy!! Its a shame what happen to all three, Harold because she had to watch her friend for on get ate by her pet and then she lost her pet. Travis because he no longer is living which is no fault of his at all it's just his instinct and the poor woman that was hurt, she will never be able to live a normal life EVER again!!!

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