REPUBLICAN-AMERICAN Editorial — Waterbury CT
BY TRACEY O’SHAUGHNESSY
When the panicked Hollywood screen writer Joe Gillis flees into Norma Desmond’s gaudy mansion in the 1950 classic “Sunset Boulevard,” he is greeted by a peculiar sight: Desmond, played by Gloria Swanson, mourning over the corpse of her dead chimp.
As a preface to the Babylonian creepiness to follow, the chimp functions brilliantly: Something is decidedly deviant in the home of Desmond, director Billy Wilder suggests, epitomized by a ghoulish funeral for a dead chimp.
When Stamford police shot Travis, a 14-year-old chimpanzee which brutally mauled Charla Nash, many wondered whether it was actually possible to own a primate as a pet, and still more wondered why anyone would.
The questions were made all the more piquant by statements by the chimp’s owner, Sandra Herold, that the male chimp “couldn’t have been more my son than if I gave birth to him.” The Associated Press reported that Herold, 70, fed the animal “the finest food, and wine in long-stemmed glasses. They took baths together and cuddled in the bed they shared. Travis brushed the lonely widow’s hair each night and pined for her when she was away.”
While dressing a dog in a pumpkin outfit at Halloween raises nary an eyebrow, having a chimp brush its teeth with a Water Pik leads many to recoil. Nevertheless, says Harwinton’s Peter Brazaitis, former curator of the Central Park Zoo, the impulse is similar. “If you work with (chimps), you realize they’re little people in monkey suits,” says Brazaitis, who also served as superintendent of reptiles at the Bronx Zoo. “They’re intelligent. They have emotion. They parent their young. You’re dealing with something that is manifesting human behavior. It’s easy to impart affection and give affection. If you’re a lonely person, a chimp is going to be nice to have around.”
Herold acquired the chimp legally in 1995. News reports indicate she bought it in Missouri. On Feb. 16, the animal attacked the 55-year-old Nash. Herold had asked Nash to help lure the chimp back into her house. The chimp subsequently attacked Nash, who sustained massive head and hand injuries in the 12-minute attack. Police, who shot and killed the chimp, said it appeared Nash’s face was ripped away. Four teams of surgeons operated on Nash for more than seven hours to stabilize the woman before she was transferred to the Cleveland Clinic.
Owning an exotic pet like a chimpanzee is not as difficult as it may appear. Although current laws prevent them from being brought across state lines, a chimp could be bought in a state if the owner bred the chimp in captivity and had legal possession of the animal, said a spokesman for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Law Enforcement Division. “People breed them; people have them in private ownership,” the spokesman said. It is typically left to the states to enact legislation about ownership, she said.
“There are many sources, both legitimate and casual,” said Brazaitis of exotic animals. The problem comes when animals bought in states with less stringent exotic-animal laws are transferred into states like Massachusetts, which legally prohibits primate ownership. Even in Connecticut, permission to possess wild animals is left to the discretion of the Department of Environmental Protection. Herold did not have a permit for Travis.
“In a state like Massachusetts that’s trying to protect the public, it can be frustrating because someone can buy a non-endangered primate in Florida and bring it in to Massachusetts, which makes enforcement difficult,” said Chris Dowd, of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Owners often are attracted to chimps because of their human characteristics. Others see them as “cute.” Still others believe the exotic animal gives them some kind of cachet, experts say.
“They’re convinced they’re doing something good, that they’re doing the right thing,” said Dowd. “There’s this thing that they’re special, that they have some special relationship that allows them to bond with the animal. And among some people, it’s a status symbol.”
“When you see chimps, you’re usually seeing them in a beer commercial or a soda commercial,” said Priscilla Feral, president of Friends of Animals, an international animal advocacy group based in Darien. “They’re all under the age of 6. They look adorable. What you don’t see is what happens 10 years later. These animals become sexually mature and extremely strong.”
Friends of Animals runs Primarily Primates, a 30-year-old sanctuary that houses, protects, and rehabilitates 450 non-native animals, particularly apes and monkeys. About 60 percent of the animals come from the pet trade; the remaining 40 percent are from biomedical research institutions. Some of the chimps arrive addicted to alcohol, Feral said, because their owners habitually serve them alcohol. Chimps can fetch as much as $30,000 to $50,000.
Before 2003, state law required people to get permits to own quadrupeds, such as deer, but the language was changed that year to the broader term of “mammals” after someone asked about owning bats. In 2004, the General Assembly amended the statute, exempting anyone from the permitting requirement if they had owned a non-domestic mammal, such as a primate, before October 2003, as long as it weighed less than 50 pounds.
But a permit, says Feral, is not a ban, which she and Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal are now seeking. The state needs a complete ban on the possession of a wild animals, Feral said. “The state has no idea how many apes and monkeys are kept,” she said. “It has no idea how many bobcats or other wild animals are kept as pets….There is no prohibition. There were town officials, including police, who knew about this state. No chimpanzee can be considered un-dangerous.”
Blumenthal agreed. “We require a permit, but there are no legislative standards for how permits should be granted,” he said. “Nobody knows whether a snake or a chimp will behave violently. It’s a wild animal.”
In 2003, New York Police removed a 450-pound Siberian tiger from the Harlem home of Antoine Yates, after the 31-year-old Yates tried to pass off his arm and leg injuries as having come from a pit bull.
Many animals, including chimpanzees, are protected under the Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species, an international agreement to ensure that international trade in specimens of wild animals and plants does not threaten their survival. But before its passage in 1973, hundreds of wild animals were brought in without any controls.