Born Free USA Blog
by Adam M Roberts,
Chief Executive Officer
When it comes to animals, Adam Roberts not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk. Since beginning his animal advocacy career in Washington, D.C. in 1991, Adam's ambition, tireless involvement, and profound knowledge of conservation and wildlife issues have cemented him as a go-to voice for protecting animals — and he has elevated Born Free USA to the respected and impactful organization that we know today. Adam's compassionate, informed, and forward-thinking blogs will surely motivate you to join us in our fight to Keep Wildlife in the Wild.
I recall walking the streets of Cancun, Mexico on break from a meeting and witnessing misguided tourists taking photographs with a chimpanzee. $1 / one picture. One chance for a photo with an endangered animal who belongs in the wild. One chance for a horrible accident; an attack; a life-altering, painful incident.
When we get up close with wild animals, especially powerful wild animals such as chimpanzees, we tempt fate.
In 2009, Charla Nash left her Connecticut home to assist her neighbor, Sandra Herold, when Herold’s 200-pound “pet” chimpanzee escaped. The chimp, Travis, had a history of violent behavior, and immediately attacked Nash, inflicting devastating injuries. It brings tears to my eyes just describing what happened. She lost her hands and face—including her nose, eyes, lips, and cheekbones—and suffered significant brain trauma. Her courageous path toward recovery, with numerous surgeries and countless hours of rehabilitation, is a testament to her remarkable resilience.
It also shows why chimpanzees and so many other wild animals do not belong in close proximity to humans. Not in our bedrooms; not in our backyards; not in our neighborhoods.
Not only has Charla Nash persevered through her grueling medical ordeal, but she now uses her experience to ensure that others do not undergo the same nightmare. She first sought to set a legal precedent in 2009 with a $50 million lawsuit against Sandra Herold, the Connecticut Department of Environmental Protection, the city of Stamford, and the veterinarian who prescribed Xanax to Travis.
I was asked by Nash's attorney in Connecticut to serve as an expert witness in the case, which focused on the state's culpability in the horrid encounter. Connecticut knew full well that Travis lived in that community. Connecticut knew full well that chimpanzees were potentially dangerous to humans. Connecticut did nothing to keep Travis out of close contact with humans.
I explained that nonhuman primates are wild animals; they cannot be, and should not be, domesticated. Those kept in private homes endure abusive conditions that may include fingernail and tooth extraction to “tame” them. Owners often keep them in tiny cages or dark basements without adequate food or care. Primates are highly social animals, and when alone, they experience loneliness, distress, and depression. The psychological anguish that primates experience in captivity is often expressed as frustration and violence toward those nearby.
Travis’ life completely matched this profile. His teeth had been removed; he was regularly drugged; and he had no interaction with other chimpanzees. It is little wonder that he lashed out—and, sadly, Nash bore the brunt of his panicked hostility. Nash ultimately settled the lawsuit with Herold, but continued to pursue legal action against the state.
Just two days ago, Connecticut lawmakers ultimately denied Nash’s request to sue the state due to the lack of legal basis, as well as the problematic precedent it would set. Senator John Kissel conceded, however, that "it was impossible not to feel human compassion for an individual who was brave enough to come to our public hearing ... who has undergone the horrific injuries that she has had.”
But, this is not the end of the road for Nash’s fight to protect both animals and humans from the devastating consequences of exotic pet ownership. Nash continues to demonstrate her unbreakable spirit with her willingness to publicly support the Captive Primate Safety Act (H.R.2856/S.1463), a federal bill that would outlaw the interstate commerce of privately owned primates. It would help crack down on internet dealers, support the efforts of state law enforcement, and reduce the demand for, and availability of, such dangerous animals as pets.
Born Free USA has been working hard to pass this bill, in the hope that it could prevent enormous human and animal suffering. Our Exotic Animal Incidents database tells a story of hundreds of other dangerous—and sometimes deadly—encounters between “pet” primates and people. These incidents, and Nash’s story, are a tragic and unequivocal testament to the fact that primates belong in the wild—and not in someone’s home.
I vividly remember the story as it unfolded on televisions across America. Police cars. Gun shots. Travis retreats to the back of the house to “his” area. Travis dead.
An ounce of prevention, the saying goes. Let there never be another Charla Nash. Because there should never be another Travis the chimpanzee.
Keep Wildlife in the Wild,