NEW HAVEN, Conn. (AP) - Connecticut officials were repeatedly
warned about the dangers posed by a chimpanzee who later mauled and
blinded a woman and were urged - more than three years before the
attack - to take action, but failed to do so, according to records
obtained by The Associated Press.
The 200-pound chimpanzee named Travis attacked Charla Nash of
Stamford in February, ripping off her hands, nose, lips and
eyelids. She has been hospitalized for months at the Cleveland
Clinic, where her condition late last week was listed as stable.
The state's response could affect a high-stakes lawsuit the
victim's family filed against the chimp's owner, Sandra Herold of
Stamford, seeking $50 million in damages. Attorneys are weighing
whether to sue others as well, but declined to comment further.
Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection officials
said the agency received general concerns about Travis, but not
specific information that the chimpanzee was a public safety
Travis, who was shot and killed by police, also had escaped in
2003 from his owner's car and led police on a chase for hours in
downtown Stamford. No one was injured.
Records obtained by The AP through a state open-records request
show that the state began receiving warnings immediately after that
Giselle Bollmann of Stamford sent an e-mail to the DEP on Oct.
21, 2003 citing the escape and calling for a thorough investigation
after reading a local newspaper account.
In 2004, Linda Howard, who ran a primate rescue operation before
she died in 2006, wrote the department, offering recommendations
for placing Travis in a sanctuary.
State officials were still talking about Travis' 2003 escape two
years later and members of at least three state agencies expressed
"Due to this incident, persons from the general public
contacted the department with safety concerns," the DEP wrote in a
report dated Sept. 16, 2005.
The draft report by a staff member cited concerns by DEP and two
other state agencies about Travis and three other primates. The
other cases involved small monkeys and a gibbon ape.
"The fact that all three departments have concerns regarding
non-human primates should warrant the necessity of joining forces
in a coordinated effort to alleviate the problem of these animals
in private ownership," the report concluded.
In a letter released in March, an unidentified DEP biologist
warned state officials last October that Travis could seriously
hurt someone if he felt threatened, noting that he had reached
adult maturity and was very large and strong. The biologist also
said that officials had not determined if his enclosure was strong
The biologist offered several options, including helping the
owner place the animal, ensuring an adequate enclosure, issuing a
permit or working with local authorities to address the concern.
"I would like to express the urgency of addressing this
issue," the biologist wrote. "It is an accident waiting to
The memo from the biologist was based on research but not on
actual knowledge of Travis' behavior, DEP officials said.
DEP officials said in a statement that over the 13 years Travis
was with Herold, the agency received only a small number of
inquiries about Travis amid thousands in general about possession
of wild animals.
"While these calls, e-mails or letters may have raised general
concerns, they did not present specific information indicating that
Travis had threatened the public safety or was exhibiting behavior
that could lead to such a threat," DEP spokesman Dennis Schain
said in a statement. "Given the horrific attack on Charla Nash we
of course look back and ask if DEP should have pursued an
aggressive approach to removing Travis the chimp from the Herold's
home in Stamford."
Gina McCarthy, Connecticut's environmental protection
commissioner, whose agency was in charge of the matter, was
promoted this month as the new assistant administrator for the
Office of Air and Radiation in Washington in the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency. She has said the memo from the biologist
underscored the need for a clear, new law that would forbid
ownership of potentially dangerous animals as pets and impose stiff
penalties for those possessing them and blamed the failure to act
on a communications problem and a lack of expertise in exotic
animals at the agency.
"The truth of the matter is that DEP was presented with a
complex situation and it is unclear if even after what would have
undoubtedly been a long legal battle we would have been successful
in removing him," Schain said.
Connecticut lawmakers approved a bill this month banning
residents from owning large primates and other potentially
dangerous animals, saying they are too unpredictable and
inappropriate as pets. The legislation stemmed from the chimpanzee
A similar bill proposed by the DEP died in the 2004 legislative
session. Schain said DEP viewed it as a good time because lawmakers
were revisiting changes it had made that broadened the ability of
people to keep animals listed as potentially dangerous if they
owned them prior to Oct. 1, 2003.
DEP officials have said the old law was too ambiguous to enforce
before the attack, but another primate owner says the law was
specifically changed years ago to target Travis after she warned
officials that he posed a danger. DEP officials denied the law was
changed specifically to target Travis.
Days after the attack on Nash, East Hampton resident Mary Krogh
sent an e-mail to DEP officials that recalled a meeting she had
with the agency in 2003, records show. Krogh said when a DEP
official asked if there were any potentially dangerous situations
in Connecticut, she brought up Travis because she heard he was
being driven around in a car.
As a result of that meeting, Krogh said officials agreed to
create a grandfather provision in the law that allowed existing
owners to keep their primates in a way that would require a permit
for Travis. Krogh was meeting with DEP officials in an effort to
keep small monkeys she rescued.
"They were shocked," Krogh said. "It appeared they were not
aware of him. They felt they had to do something. They said they
had to exclude him from the grandfather clause because they were
The law that was enacted in 2004 exempted anyone from the
permitting requirement if they owned a primate before October 2003,
as long as it weighed less than 50 pounds. Travis weighed about 200
pounds, but the DEP did not enforce the permitting requirement.
Legislative records show that the chimpanzee was the only
primate in the state required to have a permit as a result of the
change in the law.
"I happen to know that only applies to one distinct primate.
One," said Rep. Patricia Widlitz, D-Guilford, in 2004. Widlitz,
who was co-chairwoman of the committee that oversees animal issues,
made the statement on the House floor.
Schain said the agency's goal was to limit any permitting
exemptions as much as possible after a proposed ban on owning
primates died in the legislature.
"It wasn't about establishing a limit so that a primate like
Travis would be subject to permitting provisions," Schain said.
"It was more the owners of smaller primates looking for a
threshold that would allow them not to fall under permitting
provisions and keep their primates."
Travis, who starred in television commercials when he was
younger, may have come up in the discussion, but DEP officials
don't recall a warning, Schain said.
"The selection of the date of possession and the weight had
everything to do with Mary Krogh and her needs, not the existence
of the primate in Stamford," Schain said.
The law did allow the DEP commissioner to ban animals that posed
a threat to humans, but Schain said it would have been "illogical
and inappropriate" to do so after the Legislature failed to pass
such a ban.
Ultimately, officials "chose not to enter into what we believed
would be a battle to take custody of a local celebrity," McCarthy
wrote in a letter to legislators.