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The horrifying story of Travis: The face-eating chimp raised as a human

Travis the chimp and Charla Nash, his innocent victim
Travis the chimp and Charla Nash, his innocent victim

Tiger King has shown there are some fucked up people out there who think nothing of stealing an hours-old baby animal from their mum and selling them for thousands of dollars. But what kind of woman wants to raise a baby chimp like it was her own? And what do you do when your ape baby goes berserk and literally eats your best friend's face... and she survives?

For twelve minutes Sandra Herold pleaded for police to be sent to her house, her pet chimp, she screamed, had ripped her friend's face off and begun to eat her.

Travis' excited screeches could be heard in the background of the 911 call as he tore Charla Nash apart. Moments before she had tried to tempt the "agitated" ape back in to his cage using his favourite stuffed Elmo toy. The 90kg 'pet' flipped out - it might have been an unexpected reaction to taking Xanax.

Travis the chimp pictured in his enclosure at home
Travis the chimp pictured in his enclosure at home

Sandy, who had raised the 14-year-old chimp since he was three day old, had already tried to put an end to the attack by stabbing him repeatedly in the back with a butcher's knife. Travis, she said, turned around and looked her in the eye.

She told reporters: “I grabbed the shovel and hit him with the shovel to stop it. It wasn't working, so I went and I had to get a knife — and I stabbed him. I had to.

"He looked at me like, ‘Mom, what did you do?’” before she turned foot and ran, locking herself in her car, afraid that he would come for her next.

Eleven years later, the recording of her breathless pleas for police to come and shoot Travis is raw and hard to listen to.

"I need you to calm down. Why do you need somebody there?”asks an operator.

“What? Please, God!”

“What is the problem?”

“He’s killing my friend!”she screams.

“Who’s killing your friend?”

“Chimp—my chimpanzee!”

“Oh, your chimpanzee is killing your friend?”

“Yes! He ripped her apart! Hurry up! Hurry up! Please!”

Sandy Herold, Travis' "mommy" and best friend of his victim Charla Nash
Sandy Herold, Travis' "mommy" and best friend of his victim Charla Nash

“What is going on? What is the monkey doing? Tell me what the monkey is doing.”

“He—he ripped her face off!”

“He ripped her face off?”

“Gun! They got to shoot him! Please! Please! Hurry! Hurry! Please!”

Footage showing Travis attacking a police car shortly before he was shot
Footage showing Travis attacking a police car shortly before he was shot

“Ma’am, ma’am, I need you to calm down. They’re already on their way.”

“I can’t. I can’t … He’s eating her! He’s eating her!”

“He’s eating her?"

“Please! God! Please! Where are they? Where are they?”

Charla Nash pictured with Travis when he was a baby
Charla Nash pictured with Travis when he was a baby

This is the moment that Charla Nash’s life changed forever.

The 54-year-old was set on by her best friend’s pet chimp on February 16, 2009. He tore off her eyelids and nose, chewed on her face and scalped her, gouged out and ate her eyes, chewed off one of her hands, and almost tore her other arm off in a fit of unprecedented rage.

His frenzied attack left her with wounds so severe that she lost half of her blood. Police who arrived on the scene were unable to determine her gender as all her features had been destroyed. There were strips of scalp and flesh all over the yard.

When you hear stories like that you hope they died quickly. But Charla Nash didn't die, and she is is still alive today - wearing someone else's face and waiting for science to give her back her hands.

Much has been said and written about Charla's incredible journey from chimp attack victim to face transplant patient - and hopefully she will have a successful double hand transplant, too.

Sandy Herold walking Travis - wearing a nappy - through their home town of Stamford, Conneticut
Sandy Herold walking Travis - wearing a nappy - through their home town of Stamford, Conneticut

But away from the marvels of medical science and the power of the human spirit, there is another fascinating layer to the story of Travis the chimp - the relationship he had with his "mother" Charla Nash's best friend Sandy.

Fourteen years earlier she had paid $50,000 for the infant chimp and then, along with her late husband Jerry, dedicated her life to raising their ‘son’.

Of course, Travis wasn't her son. He was born to a former zoo chimp named Suzy and a Coco, who was stolen from Africa and imported to the US in the 1970s. Shortly after Travis was born, his mum was shot with a tranquiliser dart and while she was unconscious, he was taken away.

In the wild, chimps stay with their mums and continue to feed on their milk until they are five, and then hang around to care for younger siblings as part of a close family unit.

Young Travis with dad Jerry
Young Travis with dad Jerry

But from the age of three days old, Travis' family unit would just be him, Sandy and Jerry.

He would sleep in a cot in their bedroom and later in their bed. Sandy would feed him formula milk from a bottle, and he would wear nappies. After the shock death of her grown up daughter Susan, he would become her main focus.

After the attack, the then 70-year-old would tell reporters: "He couldn't be more my son than if I gave birth to him."

Sandy and Jerry's house, in Stamford, Connecticut, had been especially adapted to make it a safe play area for their hairy chimp child, who grew up enjoying human privileges like watching TV, wearing clothes, and using the toilet - but nappies were still worn for trips out and bedtime.

As he grew older his life would move even further away from what is natural for his species. He would enjoy a glass of wine with his dinner every night; he would eat steak and lobster dinners in Italian restaurants; and he would have free rein in the kitchen to make his own drinks, and be able to warm up snacks and ready meals in the microwave.

Sandy and Travis, who she treated as a son
Sandy and Travis, who she treated as a son

Travis would be allowed to drive around on a lawn mower, and was a regular sight in Stamford, where he would be seen riding shotgun with his 'dad', who ran a tow truck business. Sandy would later claim he could drive, and had stolen her car keys and set off for an adventure more than once.

After several years of idyllic and relatively calm 'family life' - there was one incident where Travis climbed out of the truck and spent two hours "playing in traffic", making police laugh as he evaded capture and "monkeyed around", Jerry died - and the dynamic of the Herold family dramatically changed.

It was reported that Sandy had grown worried about what would happen to Travis if she died, and she wrote a letter to a sanctuary asking if they would take her "son". He was morbidly obese, and she was finding him harder to deal with on her own at home.

Travis riding around on a lawnmower. apparently he could also drive a car
Travis riding around on a lawnmower. apparently he could also drive a car

She had also noticed that at night he was acting strangely, an explanation for which was offered in the final two paragraphs of the letter that was never sent, which was obtained by The New Yorker.

They read: "Needless to say, after 45 years with the most wonderful man in the world we are both lost without him and miss him dearly. Travis still waits for him especially at supper time, because at that time they both had a glass of wine with their supper and if my husband ever cooked anything you can bet it has garlic in it. Try having two guys breathing on your sleep time with (garlic breath).

"Travis would go to the bedroom window many nights sit on the bench seat look out, get very vocal and happy then come back to sleep, this was always very late at night. Finally I went to psychic and she told me Jerry would visit at night and talk to Travis and my husband would always kiss me good night. P.S. (him and Travis kiss alike) that’s good too.

“I have no family, my only child, Suzan had gotten killed in an auto accident 4 years before Jerry died and who Travis also loved. My grand kids live in North Carolina and I don’t see them very often. I live alone with Travis, we eat and sleep together but I am worried that if something happens to me as suddenly as my husband what would happen to Travis, therefore I have to try to do something before that happens.

"I set up a trust fund for him but that’s not enough, he needs someone to play with of his own kind and have the best most possible life if I’m not here to care for him. I would love to see and talk to you if that’s possible. I am flying down to see your member event enclosed is our donation. I am looking forward to meeting you.”

Travis was also given the freedom of his own sit on lawnmower
Travis was also given the freedom of his own sit on lawnmower

Instead, Travis stayed with his "mum", but his behaviour continued to deteriorate. On February 16 2009, he "stole" Sandy's car keys and escaped outside. She noticed that his usual activities - watching one of three TVs, eating ice-cream, doing art and playing with his own pet cat, Misty - were not of interest. Worried, she gave him a Xanax in a cup of tea.

Sandy would backtrack on whether or not she had given him the human grade drug, but would confirm that he was on medication for lyme disease.

With Travis now running around outside and her with a friend to meet, she called her younger friend. This itself would be disputed, with Charla claiming she was asked to help, and Sandy claiming that she offered.

Charla, who had had her hair done in a new style slightly before the incident, arrived at 3:40pm ready to help - but the usually friendly Travis approached her aggressively before he got on to his hind legs and attacked. He threw her against the side of her car before gorging himself on her face and hands.

Later when police arrived, Travis would open one of their patrol car's doors and lunge for an officer. He would shoot him four times at point blank range - but Travis didn't die. He ran, leaving a trail of blood, back in to the house, and collapsed dead on his special bed.

After the incident, NBC reporter Jeff Rossen asked Sandy: “After what you've been through with this — your friend is in the hospital fighting for her life — do you still think chimps should be pets?"

She replied: “Would I have done it again? Yes! They're the closest thing to humans — to us.

“We can give them a blood transfusion, and they can give us one. How many people go crazy and kill other people? This is one incident that I don't know what happened.

“It was a horrible thing. But I'm not a horrible person. And he wasn't a horrible chimp. It was a freak thing.”

Fifteen months later Sandy died from an aneurysm. She was buried with two urns beside her. One was her daughter's, the other was her son's.


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