Inside Travis The Chimp’s Gruesome Attack That Left A Woman Without A Face

Published July 1, 2022
Updated April 23, 2023

Travis the chimp was a beloved animal actor and a local fixture in his Connecticut town — until he viciously attacked his owner’s friend Charla Nash one day in 2009 and nearly ripped her face off.

On February 16, 2009, tragedy struck when Travis the Chimp, a chimpanzee who had gained national celebrity over the years, viciously attacked his owner’s close friend, Charla Nash. Travis’ behavior had become increasingly erratic, and the attack left Nash severely disfigured and Travis dead.

Travis The Chimp

Public DomainCharla Nash knew Travis since he was a baby, but he attacked her in 2009.

Today, Nash continues to heal from the attack, and conversations around the ownership of exotic animals have only gained more traction following the shocking attack.

Travis The Chimp’s Early Years

Travis The Chimp was born at what’s now called the Missouri Chimpanzee Sanctuary in Festus, Missouri, on Oct. 21, 1995. He was taken from his mother, Suzy, when he was 3 days old and was sold to Jerome and Sandra Herold for $50,000. Suzy was later killed after she escaped from the sanctuary.

Travis — named after country music star Travis Tritt — lived in the Herolds’ home in Stamford, Connecticut. He became something of a local celebrity, going everywhere with the couple and often accompanying them to work.

Travis In A TV Commercial

Public DomainTravis The Chimp was a local celebrity in the 1990s.

Raised alongside humans, Travis paid close attention to the directions the Herolds gave him. Their neighbor once told them, “He listened better than my nephews.”

Travis, in many ways, was like their child. He dressed himself, did chores, ate meals with the family, used a computer, and knew all the times that local ice cream trucks made their rounds. It was said that he was also a big fan of baseball.

Travis and the Herolds had many good years together, but soon tragedy struck and Travis struggled to understand.

Sandra Herold Treated Travis The Chimp Like Her Child

Travis The Chimp Photograph

Public DomainTravis was taken from his mother, Suzy, three days after his birth in Festus, Missouri.

In 2000, the Herolds’ only child was killed in a car accident. Four years later Jerome Herold lost his battle with cancer. Sandra Herold used Travis as a comfort for her losses and began pampering him, New York Magazine reported. The pair ate all their meals together, bathed together, and slept together every night.

Travis began having fits of erratic behavior just before Jerome died. In October 2003, he escaped their car and ran loose in Stamford for a period of time after someone threw trash at him through the car’s window.

The incident was the force behind the state’s passage of a law limiting primates to 50 pounds if they were pets and requiring owners to have a permit. Travis was exempted from the rule because the Herolds had him for so long.

Six years later, Travis made national headlines when he attacked Sandra Herold’s friend, Charla Nash, after a seemingly normal encounter.

Travis The Chimp’s Gruesome Attack On Charla Nash

Charla Nash was a frequent visitor to Herold’s home as the pair had been friends for many years. On Feb. 16, 2009, she was visiting the duo when Travis escaped the house with Herold’s car keys.

In an attempt to lure him back into the house, Nash held out his favorite toy — a Tickle Me Elmo doll. Though Travis the Chimp recognized the doll, Nash had recently changed her hair which may have confused and scared him. He attacked her outside the home, and Sandra Herold had to intervene.

She hit him with a shovel before resorting to stabbing Travis in the back with a knife. She later recalled, “For me to do something like that — put a knife in him — was like putting one in myself.”

She frantically called 911 and told the operator that Travis may have killed Nash. Emergency services waited until the police arrived to help Nash. When they arrived, the chimp tried to get into the police car, but the door was locked.

Scared, injured, and enraged, Travis circled the police cruiser until he found an unlocked door, smashing a window in the process.

Officer Frank Chiafari opened fire and shot Travis multiple times. Travis made his way back into the house and to his cage, likely his safe space, and died.

Travis The Chimp’s Victim And The Long Road To Recovery

Charla Nash After Attack

Nancy Lane/MediaNews Group/Boston Herald via GettyCharla Nash lost virtually her entire face and required extensive surgery following Travis’s vicious attack.

In the days following the attack, Travis the Chimp’s victim, Charla Nash, required many hours of surgery by multiple surgeons. Travis had broken nearly all the bones in her face, torn away her eyelids, nose, jaw, lips and most of her scalp, rendered her blind and fully removed one of her hands and most of the other.

Her injuries were so severe that the Stamford hospital offered the staff that treated her counseling sessions. After they saved her life and successfully reattached her jaw, she was flown to Ohio for an experimental facial transplant.

Travis’ head was taken to a state lab to be examined as the investigation of the attack continued. He did not have any diseases, though he was on medication for Lyme disease prevention.

The toxicology report revealed that Travis had been given Xanax the day of the attack, as Sandra had told police. The drug may have fueled his aggression as side effects like hallucination and mania were sometimes reported in humans.

On Nov. 11, 2009, Nash appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show to discuss the event, the experimental procedure, and her future. She said she wasn’t in any sort of pain and was looking forward to returning home.

By then, attorneys for the former friends were embroiled in a $50 million lawsuit, which was settled for $4 million in 2012.

National Changes That Followed Charla Nash’s Horrific Experience

In 2009, Rep. Mark Kirk co-sponsored the Captive Primate Safety Act, which was supported by the Humane Society of the United States and Wildlife Conservation Society, The Hour reported. The bill would have prohibited apes, monkeys, and lemurs from being sold as pets, but it died in the Senate.

Struggling to get therapy for the depression and anxiety caused by shooting Travis, Officer Frank Chiafari’s experience led to a 2010 bill that called for mental health care to be covered for police officers who were forced to kill an animal.

Travis’ attack on Charla Nash sparked a long road of discussion over the ownership of exotic pets — one that continues today as animal advocates and sellers publicly battle over right and wrong.

After reading about Travis the Chimp, learn about the elephant that trampled a woman to death in India, then attacked her funeral. Then, read about Timothy Treadwell, the man who devoted his life to grizzly bears — until they ate him.

Jessica OConnor
Jessica O'Connor is a public historian focusing on Deep South Black History with degrees from Winston-Salem State University and the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Erik Hawkins
Erik Hawkins studied English and film at Keene State College in NH and has taught English as a Second Language stateside and in South America. He has done award-winning work as a reporter and editor on crime, local government, and national politics for almost 10 years, and most recently produced true crime content for NBC's Oxygen network.