54. Travis

February 16, 2009

Rock Rimmon Road — Stamford, Connecticut

There was a woman named Sandy who lived with her pet chimpanzee, in a large house at the north end of Stamford. The animal was well-behaved, most of the time — by the standards of his species, especially. But that morning, something wasn’t right. Sandy could tell.

She had a remarkably close connection with her pet, having raised him more like her son. In fact, the whole reason she had decided to buy a chimp in the first place, back in 1995, was because her daughter, her only child, had just gotten married, and up and moved away; when the animal breeders finally called Sandy, to say that their captive mother chimp had given birth, they told her, “Your baby has arrived. It’s a boy.”

Sandy brought the breeders $50,000, and brought the baby chimp home to Stamford, swaddled in a blanket. She named the animal “Travis” — after her favorite country singer, Travis Tritt. And the chimp was so young, that Sandy — her face, her scent — was imprinted on him. In a way, she really was Travis’s mother.

Travis had an almost human upbringing; Sandy potty trained him, and brushed his teeth for him — eventually he learned to do it himself — and she bought a whole wardrobe of human clothes to dress him in, as she then did, every morning. She served him oatmeal, which he ate at the breakfast table, with a spoon. Her husband taught Travis how to ride a tricycle — and when the ape got bigger, the riding lawn mower. In his bedroom, Travis would use a computer to browse photos online, and he liked to watch baseball on TV. He even knew how to change the channels. (Sometimes he would demonstrate his proficiency with the remote when Sandy was on the phone, cranking up the volume to annoy her, and hooting in delight when she got peeved.) Travis had his own bed, in his room, but on most nights, he would get in bed with Sandy, slumbering alongside her and her husband.

The couple owned a tow-truck business in Stamford, which grew to be quite successful. Travis became their mascot —a local celebrity. Sometimes, when a car broke down in Stamford, and the driver called Sandy’s towing service, the truck would arrive with Travis in the passenger seat, waving hello. His image was painted on the sides of their trucks, and the crew were used to seeing him scamper around the depot during shift change. Everyone loved him.

In her off-time, Sandy took him everywhere, and they were a common sight around Stamford: the lady in the Corvette with the chimp sitting shotgun, his black fur-covered arm draped casually out the window. Sometimes, people could swear they actually saw Travis driving the car, by himself; Sandy said their eyes did not deceive them. “He took off with the car a couple of times.”

She spent a fortune just to feed him. If Travis heard the ice cream truck driving by, he would practically do flips. Sometimes, Sandy took him to her favorite Italian restaurant, and read him the menu; his favorites were filet mignon and lobster tail. At home, Sandy’s husband would share a glass of wine with Travis after dinner, the animal sipping daintily from a long-stemmed wine glass.

* * *

One day in 2000, Sandy’s daughter had been driving late at night, and fell asleep at the wheel. She went off the road, struck a tree, and died. The loss broke Sandy’s spirit. After that, Travis was her only child.

* * *

There had been one incident before, when Sandy lost control of her “son.” It happened in 2003; the family had been watching a baseball game together on TV, and when it ended, Sandy said she needed to pick something up from the tow shop. So they all loaded up into their SUV, and headed south through downtown Stamford.

They were stopped at a red light when an unknown pedestrian, for some reason, apparently saw Travis, and tossed an empty drink container at him, through the open window.

Travis let out a grunt, unbuckled the seat belt he was wearing, got out of the SUV, and started roaming around the street, apparently hunting for the perpetrator. The bad guy got away, but Travis had escaped Sandy’s custody, and he seemed to enjoy the chaos it wrought. He started jumping around everywhere, and running from the cops like it was a game. It took them forever to get him back in the vehicle, and back home. His antics caused a traffic jam that tied up the whole city.

* * *

Nobody got hurt, was the good news. But the incident changed everything for the family. An animal control officer, after consulting with primatologists, contacted Sandy with a reality check: Travis was now an adult. And there was a reason all the chimps you see in movies are prepubescent: adult chimps are known to be unpredictable — sometimes, violent. And they are extremely strong. Travis might live for another forty years, and Sandy was already in middle age. The situation was not sustainable.

A woman who owned a primate sanctuary in Kentucky contacted Sandy, begging to let her take Travis. Sandy was conflicted, trying to figure out what was best for her beloved companion. She ultimately said no; she told the sanctuary that Travis had to stay with her, because he was not normal. “He can’t live with other chimps. He can’t live without me.”

Sandy even brought up the issue with the mayor of Stamford himself, or at least she would claim she did. She said she was driving around with Travis shortly after the incident in the intersection, and passed by the mayor’s home. He was outside, and Sandy stopped to chat. “He just said, ‘San, do me a favor? Don’t let him get out again,’” Sandy remembers. She would have to keep Travis locked up, the mayor added, because, “if he got loose again, they were going to shoot him.”

The mayor would deny this conversation ever happened (though he confirms he had other chats with Sandy on occasion over the years). Either way, soon after, she stopped letting Travis out of the house, and stopped taking him for car rides. She and her husband renovated the whole rear side of the house, constructing a sturdy steel cage around Travis’s bedroom, with a heavy, lockable door to the hall, and another door that Travis could slide open, to access his new enclosure in the backyard.

Sandy and her husband mostly stayed home after that, when they weren’t working. They couldn’t take Travis with them anymore, and they didn’t like to leave him without any company.

A few years later, Sandy’s husband suddenly died of stomach cancer. When Sandy came home from the hospital alone, Travis was inconsolable, picking up a framed photo of his father-figure off of the wall, and holding it to his heart. Sandy was just as shaken, and to sooth her grief, Travis would brush her hair for her while she sat on the couch, weeping.

It was to be just the two of them in the house after that; as the years passed, Sandy became almost a recluse. Travis continued to grow.

* * *

Behind the scenes, Connecticut was still trying to figure out what it could do to resolve the situation. Late in 2008, a biologist from DEEP (Department of Energy and Environmental Protection) wrote a memorandum to her supervisors. She wanted to emphasize the danger of the situation out on Rock Rimmon Road:

Subject: Travis the chimpanzee

Importance: HIGH

The issue of the private ownership of Travis continues to be a concern as to public safety. …I’m afraid if he feels threatened or if someone enters his territory, he could seriously hurt someone. …it has not been determined if the enclosure is strong enough to secure the animal. …[Connecticut law] prohibits the possession of the primate weighing more than 50 pounds. Travis does not meet the exemption, since it’s over 50 pounds, and it has the potential to inflict harm and danger.

The law she was referring to was passed in 2004 — the “50 pounds” language had been inserted specifically to deal with Travis, the only animal in the state that it would apply to — but Sandy had so far ignored the order to give up ownership of her chimp, and the state had not been able to decide what it should do next.

The concerned biologist listed some options: the “friendliest” one would be to have someone appraise the integrity of the enclosure, and certify it was strong enough. But, that didn’t conform with the law: no primates over 50 pounds with the potential to inflict harm and danger.

Another option was to send Sandy a letter advising her of her legal responsibility. But it seemed likely that she would just ignore the letter, based on her past actions.

They could send an officer out, to speak to Sandy. But that could set off just the sort of incident they were hoping to avert — “If an officer just shows up, they may be placing themselves in a dangerous situation.”

A fourth option would be to have DEEP issue a permit, which would simply make Sandy’s ownership of Travis legal. But that didn’t really solve the potential danger either, and so the biologist felt it would be irresponsible to public safety, “[because] we would just be condoning the activity.”

The biologist gave a final option: “Have a qualified veterinarian tranquilize and remove the animal from the home.” To this, she added, “I would like to express the urgency of addressing this issue: it is an accident waiting to happen.”

* * *

Sandy was trying to come up with options, too. Her husband had warned her, in his last days, that Travis would be too much to handle alone, and urged her to send their cherished pet to the sanctuary. Now, Sandy wrote the sanctuary a message:

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. I set up a trust fund for him but that’s not enough, he needs someone to play with of his own kind and have the best most possible life if I’m not here to care for him.

Sandy ended with a request to set up a meeting; but, she never sent the letter. She left it in a drawer, and instead decided, again, to confront the situation later. There was still time. Travis was like anyone else — he had good days, and bad days.

* * *

February 16th was a bad day.

The chimp had seemed “agitated” all morning, so Sandy put some Xanax in his tea. It wasn’t the first time she had done it. She frequently dosed him when he was moody. (It is not known how she got the pills — but they were definitely not prescribed to a chimp.)

She fed him fish and chips for lunch that afternoon, and some Carvel ice cream cake. But he was still listless. He didn’t want to color, or pet his cat. Nothing on the TV or the computer appealed to him.

Going about her household chores, Sandy went in to clean Travis’s room, leaving her keys to the front door on the kitchen counter; when she came back out, the keys were gone, and the front door was open. Travis had gotten out.

He hadn’t left the house in four years. If they saw him, the townspeople would barely recognize Travis as the same nimble creature who had stopped traffic in 2003: he was 240 pounds now — morbidly obese for a chimp. And still frighteningly strong; there was no guarantee that the iron gate at the end of the driveway would actually keep him in, if he tested it.

Sandy picked up the phone, and called her friend Charla, who was also a longtime employee of the towing company. Charla used to hang out with Travis in the dispatch office when he was a baby, and she would still check in on him at home in recent years, on the rare occasion Sandy was away. On the phone, Sandy told her that Travis had gotten out, and was running from car to car with her keys, apparently wanting to go for a drive somewhere; later, there would be some dispute over whether Sandy was asking Charla for her help, as a friend, or telling her to come over, as her boss. But in either case, Charla had a rapport with the animal, and Sandy needed help.

Charla had just gotten a makeover, so her hair was different than Travis had ever seen it. And she was driving a different car than normal. Sandy would later speculate that when Charla arrived, Travis did not recognize her — he thought she was a stranger. A threat. When she got out of the car, Charla was holding a plush Elmo doll in front of her, to give to Travis as a present. Instead, Travis leapt onto her, and began savagely ripping away pieces of her face.

Sandy was horrified, and begged Travis to stop. She picked up a snow shovel from the ground and starting hitting the ape with it, but he kept attacking. All three of them were screaming. Charla tried to fend him away with her hands, but Travis bit them off. Sandy ran into the house, got a knife, and came and stabbed Travis in the back. Travis kept on clawing at Charla. Sandy pulled the knife out and stabbed him again, and again.

Finally, Travis stopped; he stood, turned around, and just stared her in the eye — “He looked at me like, ‘Mom, what did you do?’”, she would later say. But then he went right back at Charla.

Sandy ran to her car, locked herself inside, and called 9-1-1. In the call — audio of which would shock audiences across the nation when it was played on the news — Sandy pleads with the dispatcher to “send the police with a gun” while the sound of Travis screeching continues ceaselessly in the background. “They got to shoot him! Please! Please! Hurry! Hurry! Please! He’s eating her!”

* * *

The first officer arrived about ten minutes later. Coming to a stop in his squad car, he saw Charla, alone, lying in the grass. Her face and her hands were gone.

Then, Travis appeared.

The ape slapped the car’s driver-side mirror off, and went over to the passenger-side door, and tried to open it. Locked. He came back to the driver’s side, and opened that one. The officer inside, scrambling to draw his service Glock, looked up and saw Travis baring his blood-stained teeth. He opened fire.

Travis took four shots, and staggered backward. He turned, and ran on his knuckles, back inside the house, leaving a trail of blood going up the porch and into his bedroom, where he fell, reaching for his bedpost as he hit the floor, and died.

The medics arrived soon after, and they were able, barely, to save Charla’s life. But they would never forget the carnage Travis had wrought. “What he did was essentially what they do in the jungle,” one of them told Fox News. “This was a beast taken out of his element and put into our world.”