Documents Show Connecticut Officials Were Warned about Chimp

June 22, 2009

Connecticut officials were repeatedly warned about the dangers posed by a chimpanzee that 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 threat.

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 event.

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 concern.

“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 enough.

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 happen.”

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 attack.

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 concerned.”

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.

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