Stamford Advocate

Apes’ strength, aggression are cited as dangers
By Jeff Morganteen

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.”