Now and then newspapers and the broadcast media treat us to an occurrence so gross and so horrific it is difficult to put it out of our minds. The recent chimpanzee attack on 55-year-old Charla Nash in Connecticut is one such story.

Last week, Nash went to the home of a friend, Sandra Herold, whose pet chimpanzee, Travis, had escaped from the house. For reasons yet unknown, the 200-pound chimpanzee attacked Ms. Nash, inflicting wounds that left veteran medical workers weak in the knees. One member of the medical team described the mutilation as “face and scalp injuries so severe that we could not tell whether the victim was male or female. Her hands looked as though they had been wrecked by a machine.” When the chimpanzee attacked police responding to the incident, they shot and killed the animal. The officers said it appeared that Nash’s face was ripped away during the 12-minute attack.

After initial emergency treatment, Ms. Nash was transferred four days later to the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio – the facility that performed the world’s first face transplant. Ms. Nash underwent seven hours of surgery before she could be flown by medivac plane to Cleveland. Surgeons would not say whether a face transplant was planned, and that even if it were, several preparatory surgeries would be necessary before the transplant could take place, possibly two years from now.

Also unclear are the specific injuries suffered by Ms. Nash during the attack. The New York Daily News and The Stamford Tristate each said the victim lost her eyes, nose, and jaw. Other reports said her eyes were damaged during the brutal mauling, but not destroyed. Surgical teams of plastic surgeons, orthopedics, hand specialists, ophthalmology and trauma worked more than seven hours on Nash before she could be airlifted to the Cleveland Clinic.

While ownership of a chimpanzee is apparently legal in Connecticut, questions quickly arose as to whether it should be legal, and the extent of legal responsibility involved. The chimp’s owner said she fed him lobster, cheesecake and other gourmet food, gave him champagne in long-stemmed glasses, took baths with the animal, slept in the same bed with him, and trained him to brush her hair each night.

Experts on primates say this aberrant relationship may have formed a bond between Sandra Herold and the animal that manifested itself in a rage of jealousy. It was not the first time that Travis attacked a human. In 1996 Travis bit the hand of Leslie Mostel Paul hard enough to draw blood, forcing her to get a series of rabies shots. Ms. Paul said that Travis’ owner was slow in producing his medical records and as a consequence Paul had to get a series of rabies shots. “My impression was she was more like, ‘Oh, this is going to be a pain the neck,’” Paul said.

Ms. Herold said she had recently given Travis doses of Xanax, an anti-anxiety drug, even though it had not been prescribed for him. So far no criminal charges have been brought against Herold, either by authorities or members of Paul’s family. But there are laws on the books that can hold a pet owner responsible if the animal was known to be a danger to others. During a Scientific American chat on the internet, it was stated that chimpanzee attacks on humans are not that uncommon. In captivity, chimpanzees soon learn they are much stronger than humans – five times stronger – so that even a professional wrestler would not be able to hold a chimpanzee down.

Meanwhile, the Humane Society of the United States has renewed its call to pass the Captive Primate Safety Act. The law would prohibit interstate commerce in primates for the pet trade. In essence, it would make it illegal to buy or transport a pet primate across state lines. Currently, a young chimpanzee has a going rate of $50,000 and even more if being sold illegally. The Society and those sponsoring the legislation believe that primates and other wild animals are a threat to public safety and are a danger to the owner and inhumane to the animal. The Society’s executive vice president, Michael Markarian, says primates are wild animals who can attack and spread disease and who “don’t belong in our bedrooms and basements.”

CHASE HAMIL

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