How Charla Nash Survived One Of The Most Horrifying Animal Attacks In History

Published November 7, 2022
Updated May 21, 2024

In February 2009, Charla Nash was viciously mauled by Travis the Chimp, leaving her clinging to life and in need of a full face transplant.

Charla Nash

MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via Getty ImagesCharla Nash’s new face, post-surgery.

On Feb. 16, 2009, Charla Nash visited the home of her longtime friend, Sandra Herold, like she’d done many times before. Unfortunately, the visit was anything but normal.

Sandra and her husband, Jerome Herold, had adopted a young chimpanzee named Travis over a decade earlier. Although he had grown up in the home alongside humans from the time he was only three days old and was a beloved member of the community, he had been having fits of erratic behavior for several years.

Tragically, the chimp — who had dressed himself, done chores around the house, and kept Sandra company after her husband’s passing — viciously attacked Charla Nash that morning, leaving her permanently disfigured.

Charla Nash And Sandra Herold’s Longtime Friendship

Sandra Herold had recently suffered a pair of tragedies. In September 2000, the Herolds’ only child, Suzan, died after her car collided with a tree along an empty Virginia highway.

Luckily, New York Magazine reported, Suzan’s infant daughter was unscathed — but Sandra Herold spiraled into depression and struggled to maintain a relationship with her grandchildren.

The second tragedy came in April 2005, when Herold’s husband died of stomach cancer after a weeks-long stay in the hospital. The sudden loss not only sent her into a severe depression — but their pet chimp, Travis, as well.

“We are both lost without him and miss him dearly. Travis still waits for him especially at supper time, because at that time they both had a glass of wine with their supper,” Herold wrote in a letter to a chimpanzee sanctuary owner in Florida, nearly a year after Jerry’s death.

“I live alone with Travis, we eat and sleep together but I am worried that if something happens to me as suddenly as my husband what would happen to Travis, therefore I have to try to do something before that happens.”

Throughout this time period, Sandra Herold’s isolation and unfortunate circumstances in Charla Nash’s life had caused the two friends to drift apart.

Charla Nash And Travis The Chimp

Public DomainCharla Nash and Travis the Chimp, years before the attack when he was still a baby.

Nash and her then-12-year-old daughter struggled to find permanent housing and stayed in a homeless shelter for more than a year at one point. Nash was scraping by on odd jobs, doing yard work, and cleaning horse stalls.

But Nash and Herold reconnected shortly after Jerry’s death, and what’s more, Herold offered Nash and her daughter a rent-free loft apartment that had belonged to her late daughter. She also gave Nash a job handling towing dispatch and bookkeeping.

Charla Nash also took care of Herold’s lawn and looked in on Travis, who had by this time become morbidly obese, spending most of his time snacking, watching TV, playing on the computer, and roaming the house which had become a mess of unworn clothes stuffed into plastic bags and bins.

Things were clearly unwell in the Herold household, but Nash and Herold’s friendship seemed to be a small beacon of light.

Travis The Chimp’s Savage Assault On Charla Nash

One February weekend in 2009, Sandra Herold and Charla Nash embarked on a rare outing, going to the Mohegan Sun Casino in Montville, Connecticut. Herold took her friend to the salon before they left — just in case, she joked, two eligible bachelors happened to appear.

But when they returned on February 16, Herold came home to a highly agitated Travis. While she was cleaning his room, he took her keys from the kitchen counter, unlocked the door, and went out into the yard.

For the rest of the day, he showed no interest in the things that he typically enjoyed. Concerned, Herold put a Xanax in his afternoon tea.

Sandra Herold And Travis

Sandra Herold/Contributed Photo/Connecticut PostSandra Herold and Travis the Chimp in 2002, when Travis was 10-years-old.

Here, the accounts split — Nash maintained that Herold called and asked for her help coaxing Travis back into the home. Herold, however, has said that Nash offered her help.

In either case, Charla Nash arrived at the Herold home around 3:40 p.m. Travis was in the front yard. To try and lure him back into the house, Nash showed him his favorite toy, a Tickle-Me-Elmo doll.

Something in Travis snapped then. He knuckle-ran over to Nash, stood on his two legs, and threw her into the side of her car, then to the ground. He continued to ravage the woman as she lay on the ground bleeding.

Herold began hysterically beating Travis over the head with a shovel, but the chimp wouldn’t stop. Not knowing what else to do, she ran into her house, grabbed a butcher knife, and stabbed him in the back. Still, he didn’t stop. She stabbed him twice more.

Travis stood up, looked his owner directly in the face, and then continued his assault on Nash.

Frantically, Herold dialed 911. “He’s killing my friend!” she screamed. “He ripped her apart! Hurry up! Hurry up! Please!”

Nearly incomprehensible with panic, she told the dispatch officer, “He — he ripped her face off … He’s eating her!”

Charla Nash’s Lifetime Of Recovery

When police arrived, they found Travis stalking the area, covered in blood. The officer fired several rounds into him, and Travis, bleeding, fled into the house. A trail of blood followed his path through the kitchen and bedroom, into his room where he died grasping his bedpost.

Bits of Nash’s body littered the yard — flesh, fingers, and nearly half her body’s blood. Travis had ripped off her eyelids, nose, jaw, lips, and a large portion of her scalp.

As the officer approached what was sure to be her lifeless body, she reached out for his leg. Somehow, Charla Nash was still alive.

Three days after the attack, in critical condition, she was flown from Stamford to the Cleveland Clinic — where she would undergo 15 months of intervention.

Nine months after the attack, on Charla Nash’s 56th birthday, she revealed her face live on Oprah Winfrey’s show in what is now recognized as one of television’s most extraordinary moments.

In the years since, she has undergone several reconstructive surgeries, including a face transplant.

“I’ve never been a quitter,” she said to Oprah ahead of the transplant. “Unfortunately, there’s not a whole lot I can do … It’s very hard to live. Not even live — half-live.”

Perhaps the saving grace in Charla Nash’s story — if there is to be one — is that she doesn’t remember the attack, over a decade later.

“I’m told that it could stay hidden for years, and it could possibly hit me and cause me nightmares and such,” she told TODAY. “In the case that it does, I can reach out for psychological help, but knock on wood, I don’t have any nightmares or remembrance.”

Nash, now in her late 60s, spends her time listening to audiobooks and music, but she is still blind from the attack. She may not have lost her life, but the woman she was is all but gone — she even wears another person’s face entirely.

Still, she has remained positive about her recovery and hopes that her surgeries could help soldiers who face similar disfigurements in the future.

“Don’t think about the past and what has happened,” she offered as advice. “Think about what you’re going to be, going forward, and what you want to do next. Never give up.”

After reading about Charla Nash’s miraculous survival, learn about chilling, real-life cannibal attacks. Then, learn about the runner in Colorado who fought off a mountain lion with his bare hands.

Austin Harvey
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Austin Harvey has also had work published with Discover Magazine, Giddy, and Lucid covering topics on mental health, sexual health, history, and sociology. He holds a Bachelor's degree from Point Park University.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Harvey, Austin. "How Charla Nash Survived One Of The Most Horrifying Animal Attacks In History.", November 7, 2022, Accessed June 16, 2024.