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Introduction: Unexpected Mayhem
Chapter One: From Butterflies to Big Cats, Great Apes, and Long SnakesChapter Two: Attempted Amnesty
Chapter Three: Monkey Smuggler
Chapter Four: Federal Case
Chapter Five: Consensual Bestiality
Chapter Six: Cat Sales
Chapter Seven: Caged Tiger
Chapter Eight: Animal Persons
Chapter Nine: Exotic Bust
Chapter Ten: Interspecies Families
Chapter Eleven: Chimp Factory
Chapter Twelve: Travis’s Mother
Chapter Thirteen: Always Wild
Chapter Fourteen: Exotic Auction
Chapter Fifteen: Roadside Zoo
Chapter Sixteen: Rampant Trafficking
Chapter Seventeen: Snake Lover
Chapter Eighteen: Python Plague
Chapter Nineteen: Tiger Rap
Chapter Twenty: Absurd Infestation
Chapter Twenty-one: Python Hunting
Chapter Twenty-two: Pets Defined
Chapter Twenty-three: Picasso Sprays
Chapter Twenty-four: Strange Hobby
Travis Attacks Charla Nash
"The Chimp killed my Friend!" an understandably hysterical Sandra Herold screams at the police operator as a primal screeching competes with her voice on the other end of the line.
The recording of the 911 call from chimpanzee owner Herold is haunting, and continual percussive screeching punctuates the call as the dispatcher responding at headquarters asks with appropriate cool, "What's going on there?"
Throughout the myriad, strange-but-true experiences I've had over the last year studying the relationships of my fellow humans and their so-called exotic pets, I remain haunted by that police recording. The plaintive, out-of-control human cry for help, combined with the even more primitive shriek of savage victory, stuck with me throughout my research for this book. It provided a constant reminder of a worst-case scenario for what can happen when we humans indulge a certain aspect of our nature. We want to tame the wild beasts. The sensational audio is in the public domain and was circulated by several newspapers, including the New York Post, which posted it on its Web site under a typical tabloid headline, "Why Chimp Went Bananas on Gal." I listened to the horrific, desperate call after first sitting through an online advertisement-bizarre because of its juxtaposition with the 911 message-for Pampers and the diaper company's Cruisers brand. The music is upbeat as the cutest little baby crawls determinedly across a shiny hardwood floor. "Cruisers flex to fit in high-motion areas, especially around the legs and waist," says the female announcer in a proud-sounding voice, and the picture changes to a mother figure bouncing said baby on her lap, flexing those legs and waist. "It's our best fit ever, to help stop leaks, no matter how much you move." An especially odd contrast considering that Travis, the chimpanzee screeching on the 911 recording, wore diapers.
"Send the police!" pleads Sandra Herold.
"What's the problem there?" asks the dispatcher at the police station in Stamford, Connecticut.
"The chimp killed my friend!" she yells.
"What's the problem with your friend?" he asks. For several seconds the only sound on the recording is the hideous screeching of the chimp, an aggressive cry that sounds crowlike.
"What's the problem with your friend?" the dispatcher repeats over and over.
"Oh, please," moans Herold.
"What's the problem with your friend? I need to know."
"Call the police!" she yells back. "With a gun, with a gun! He's killing my girlfriend!"
The dispatcher is heard on his radio sending a car to Herold's address.
"Hurry up!" she continues to yell.
"They're on their way," he tells her, "but I need more information. Who's doing this? Who has the gun?"
"No!" Her frustration is clear. "Bring the gun! You've got to kill this chimp."
"What's the problem there?"
"I need you to talk to me. I need you to calm down. Why do you need somebody there?"
"He's killing my friend!"
"Who's killing your friend?"
"Oh," says the dispatcher, and at this point his passive acceptance of a unique suburban crisis borders on the comedic. "Oh, your chimpanzee is killing your friend." As if chimp attacks in Stamford are routine.
"Hurry up, please!"
"There's someone on the way," he reassures her.
"Tell me what the monkey's doing," asks the dispatcher, and Sandra Herold's immediate answer is unbelievable-and true.
"He ripped her face off."
"He ripped her face off?" The dispatcher sounds incredulous.
"He's tried. He tried. He's trying to attack me!"
Herold cries, pleading with the police to hurry. The dispatcher again tries to calm her and asks her to help her friend.
"I can't. He tried to attack me now."
"Okay. Then back off. Don't get any closer, okay?"
"He ripped her apart. Please hurry." She's sobbing. "Oh, my God. She's dead. She's dead. Oh, my God."
The police arrive after almost ten minutes of Herold's crying, "Please hurry," and the dispatcher urging her to breathe.
"Shoot him!" she yells.
Shoot him the police did. When the paramedics and cops arrived on the scene, Travis the chimpanzee ran off into the woods that surround Herold's home. Officers chased after him. He returned to the scene of his attack and assaulted cops who were guarding the medics as they treated the victim. Travis, who was intimately familiar with human tools-he was famous for drinking from stemmed glasses and operating a personal computer-opened the door of a squad car and went after the officer in the driver's seat. Police Captain Richard Conklin picks up the story by explaining that the cop in the cruiser felt forced to shoot to kill. "He's trapped in his car," the captain explains. "He has nowhere to go. So he pulls his sidearm and shoots the chimp several times in close proximity." But the chase was not over. The wounded animal again ran into the woods, this time bleeding from what would become a mortal wound. Searchers followed the bloody trail back toward Herold's home, into the house, and to the chimp's cage. There he lay on his bed, dead.
Two days later Sandra Herold talked with NBC News correspondent Jeff Rossen, inviting the reporter into her home for an hour-long chat and a look at Travis' suburban environment. The accompanying cameraman shot video footage of Travis's primitive drawings decorating the refrigerator. "He couldn't be more my son than if I gave birth to him," Herold said about the late Travis. "Would I have done it again?" She rephrased the question when she was asked if she regretted creating a humanlike habitat for Travis, and she answered, "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, and I don't know what happened." She told Rossen that Travis used the toilet (apparently the diapers were a safety precaution), and he could brush his teeth and dress himself. "I used to buy everything for him-filet mignon, lobster tails, Lindt's chocolate," Herold recalled.
"He ate well," observed Rossen, in an awkward television moment during the wrenching report he presented on the network's Today show.
"I saw what was going on," Herold said, "and I hollered at him. He was just grabbing at her, and I went and got the shovel. I was trying to hit him with the shovel to stop it, and it wasn't working." So she grabbed a knife and stabbed him. As Herold recounts that awful moment, she cried. "He looked at me like, 'Mom! What did you do?'"
Herold also talked with Fox News just after the attack, saying that following the death of her husband and daughter, Travis was her family. "He didn't have anything but love until this freak accident," she said. "He was my life. Everybody knows it. I cooked for him, I shopped for him, I lived with him, I slept with him. He was just the only thing I had left. It's something I can't hardly live with because he went in his room and died, and I wasn't with him. I couldn't get back in the house." Not that Herold ignored the fate of her friend when she reacted in public. "I had to get a shovel, then a knife to get Travis off of Charlie," she told the New York Post just after her friend Charla Nash was mauled. "It was very difficult to do this, but I had to save my friend. I am so sorry for what happened to Charlie. She is my dear friend."
Surrounded by photographs, toys, the drawings, and her memories, Sandra Herold told the Today show audience, "It's a horrible thing, but I'm not a horrible person, and he wasn't a horrible chimp. It was a freak thing."
Not such a freak "thing," according to Frans de Waal. He's the lead biologist at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center at Emory University in Atlanta. "They're very complex creatures," Waal says about all chimpanzees. And they're strong. The brute force of chimpanzees is measured at multiple times the strength of a human. Waal is both a psychologist and a biologist, and he says we humans can't know for sure what's going on in the mind of a chimpanzee. "People must not assume that with someone they already know there's not some underlying tension," he says of the manner in which apes relate to the humans with whom they interact. "It's often impossible to figure out what reason they have for attacking." With their potent muscles and massive canine teeth, chimpanzees are potential killing machines. "Having a chimp in your home is like having a tiger in your home," says Waal. "It's not really very different. They are both very dangerous."
That NBC could feature the Travis tragedy on the Today show without a reference to J. Fred Muggs is a prime example of our popular culture's short attention span. The peacock network, and the Today show in particular, is responsible for presenting to a huge nationwide audience the image of the chimpanzee not as a wild animal but as a cute mascot masquerading as an almost-human.
In 1952 the network launched the Today show, with the erudite Dave Garroway as host. Ratings languished. In 1953, wearing diapers and a wardrobe that ranged from a T-shirt to a business suit, the chimpanzee called J. Fred Muggs joined Garroway on the set of the live broadcast. Eisenhower-era America became enthralled with the chimpanzee's antics-playing the piano, messing with his birthday cakes, "interviewing" celebrities-and ratings soared. Garroway and Muggs costarred until 1957, and by then the Today show had secured its permanent place as a morning television institution. Following a career that continued long after his Today show tenure, the chimpanzee, along with his owner and trainer, Carmine "Bud" Mennella, retired to Florida. In 1998 a Florida game warden fined Mennella $5 for possessing wildlife without a permit. "I was insulted," Mennella said, "that they could treat Fred like an animal and not a person."
The morning Garroway-Muggs routine inculcated in the minds of its nationwide TV audience the idea that humans can coexist with wild animals, and that we can tame them and teach them to be like us. The role played by J. Fred Muggs was not that of a chimpanzee; he was anthropomorphized and so was a prime example of the popular media of the day teaching America-erroneously-that an uncontrollable and deadly strong species closely related to us would make a good house pet.
* * *
Charla Nash survived the attack from Travis, barely. Months later she was still hospitalized and in critical condition when one of her brothers summarized her condition for a public both curious and anxious to offer her support. "Charla is totally blind," he wrote. "Her last operation was to remove the eyes to prevent infections. Charla has lost her hands." He described in vivid detail her physical losses and the initial reconstructive work done by her doctors. "Most of Charla's face did not survive. From the bridge of the nose down to her bottom lip and between the cheekbones. A flap of muscle and skin has replaced this area to prevent any infection. A temporary pallet has been installed."
Almost a year after the attack, Nash appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show and publicly revealed the injuries her brother had described. "I'm the same person I've always been," she told the television audience. "I just look different. There are things that happen in life you can't change." She remained hospitalized, her bandages changed daily, and her food consumed through a straw fitted to where her mouth used to be. "I don't think about it," she told Winfrey of the mauling she received from Travis, a trauma she cannot remember. "There's no time for that because I need to heal, not look backwards." She said Travis scared her prior to the day he almost killed her. "He was big and scary. He was huge."
* * *
A horrific story, but rare. Other chimpanzees have mauled other humans, but such cases are few. Even dog bites don't kill in the numbers the worriers about vicious dogs may suggest. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention figure about sixteen dog bite victims die in the United States every year. Close to five million Americans are bitten by dogs every year, and there are plenty of serious injuries. Legal to own and supposedly domesticated, dogs bite, and dog bites man is not a news story precisely because it is so commonplace.
When supposedly domesticated dogs are responsible for so many attacks, when a chimpanzee who is considered a member of the family can literally tear a person's face off, one is forced to consider what the words actually mean, wild versus domestic. I contemplate the line separating those two types, wondering if there really is such a thing as a completely domesticated animal, wondering if there isn't forever a little wild in all of us.
"How many people go crazy and kill other people?" asked Sandra Herold.
For the next several months as I explored the complicated, morally ambiguous, and endlessly fascinating world of exotic pet ownership, Herold's question remained with me. It is nonsensical to compare humans violently interacting with each other and a wild animal attacking a defenseless woman. There is no parallel. Yet if we allow ourselves to keep dogs (which often are out of control and vicious), why not other animals like chimpanzees, even if they also might exhibit violent behavior? What's wild, and what's domesticated? We humans are, after all, animals, too, and at times a wild species. Does the value of exotic pet ownership outweigh the risks? Our pets often are extensions of ourselves, both psychologically and legally. When a dog attacks a person, its owner is liable for the damage. Was Sandra Herold alone responsible for the attack on Charla Nash? Perhaps we're collectively responsible since the law at the time allowed the chimp to live in the Connecticut suburbs. With those thoughts in mind, I headed to the Oakland airport and grabbed a Southwest flight to Spokane, hoping to convince a felon convicted of animal smuggling to open the gate at her isolated rural enclave and talk, the first stop on my journey toward some answers.
Survivalist Fran Ogren Conspires with Her Daughter
Fran Ogren Objects to being Called a Smuggler, but that's what she is. She's a convicted felon facing a prison sentence for smuggling a monkey from Thailand through Los Angeles International Airport and up to Spokane. She conspired with her daughter, the jury at their trial decided, to bring Apoo, a two-month-old rhesus macaque, home from Bangkok by sedating the monkey and secreting it where it attracted no suspicion. Ogren's daughter, Gypsy Lawson, pretended she was pregnant. She walked through customs at LAX looking like what customs officers thought was just another expectant mother.
"The callousness and intent these people showed in carrying out their plan was egregious and placed at risk not only wildlife but potentially the health of other passengers on the plane and in their community," Paul Chang, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service special agent in charge of the investigation, said after the mother and daughter were convicted. "These animals are known carriers of viruses and parasites that can be transmitted to humans, although this particular animal tested negative."
When I call Ogren from Spokane and explain why I want to meet with her, she is cordial but cautious. She feels the press mistreated her, that the coverage of her gambit was unfair. Nonetheless, after I explain my mission, she acquiesces to sit for an interview and gives me detailed directions to her remote wilderness farm. I head north on US 395 out of Spokane on a glorious late summer day. There's not much but two-lane blacktop between me and Canada except for sparkling deep blue lakes, broad valleys of rich pastureland, and dramatic rock outcroppings on mountainsides covered with thick stands of evergreens. The tableau reminds me of an old Hamm's beer commercial: From the land of sky blue waters, minus Shasha, the Hamm's bear. Later, Ogren and her husband will warn me to be careful on the twilight drive back to Spokane, because of deer on the highway and bears.
Excerpted from FORBIDDEN CREATURES by PETER LAUFER Copyright © 2010 by Peter Laufer. Excerpted by permission.
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Posted January 2, 2011
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