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Travis the Menace

He was the most famous ape in America. But to really understand a chimp, you have to know his mother.

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Travis holding Sandy's grandson, Andrew.  

Throughout her life, Sandy Herold had long, straight hair so black it almost looked wet. She wore it down below her shoulders, her bangs cut straight across. She applied bright-pink lipstick and copious amounts of bronzer. She wore skintight size-7 jeans. She spoke with a strange accent, a New York–New England hybrid, and spent her entire life in Stamford, Connecticut.

She was born in 1938 to a Jewish mother and Italian father who operated a popular bakery downtown and eventually built an unassuming shingled house on a windy road called Rock Rimmon, to the north of the city. As an only child, Sandy spent much of her time playing with her German shepherd Gretchen and tending to the horses on the property. At birthdays, her parents outfitted her in silk dresses and cardigans and had her pose for photographs, smiling, near multitiered cakes, Gretchen standing at her side.

She married shortly after high school, then again in 1960. Her second marriage was romantic, intense, and desperate—she adored her new husband, with whom she had a daughter named Suzan, in 1961, but they fought violently over his frequent affairs and divorced after four years. At 30, Sandy married her third husband, Jerry Herold, who was kind, intelligent, and devoted. Her life stabilized; she, Jerry, and Sue, whom Jerry raised as his own, ultimately settled in the house on Rock Rimmon Road with Sandy’s parents. Sandy and Jerry opened several businesses in Stamford, including a tow operation and an auto-body shop, that would soon make them unlikely millionaires.

For a time in the seventies, Sandy, Sue, and Jerry towed their horses from state to state so that Sandy (and later Sue) could barrel-race semi-professionally in rodeos. It was during a stint with the country singer Loretta Lynn’s traveling rodeo that Sandy struck up a lifelong friendship with an 18-year-old runaway named Charla Nash, who was rodeoing her way around the country. One day, Sandy and Charla spotted a chimpanzee dressed in Westernwear who rode a horse around the ring. Sandy sought him out backstage. She was carrying gummy bears. He took them from her with his fingers. Later, back atop his horse and wearing a cowboy hat, the chimp spotted Sandy in the audience. He jumped down, ran on two legs, and leaped into her arms.

Between the expanding businesses, the horses in the yard, and their many dogs, the Herolds lived a happily frenetic life. Sue grew into a platinum-blonde version of her mother. The two raced side by side, country-line-danced, worked together at the businesses. Mother and daughter were engaged in one endless conversation. And so when Sue married an employee from her parents’ shop and moved away, Sandy was bitter and heartbroken. Then each of her parents became sick and died. Her world narrowed further. Seemingly all of a sudden, she saw herself and Jerry drifting beyond the outer periphery of middle age.

Jerry was home tending to the businesses as Sandy landed at the Lambert–St. Louis International Airport one day in 1995. A few days earlier, she had received a call from Connie Casey, a breeder in Festus, Missouri, a rural town 35 miles south of St. Louis. “Sandy,” she said, “your baby has arrived. It’s a boy.”

Sandy stood in the Caseys’ living room. In her arms, swaddled and in a diaper, lay tiny Travis—named after her favorite singer, Travis Tritt. Travis was the son of Coco, who’d been snatched from the jungles of equatorial Africa in the early seventies and purchased for $12,000, and an 11-year-old retired zoo chimp named Suzy. A day earlier, the Caseys had shot a tranquilizer in Suzy and removed Travis from her cage. Travis peered up at Sandy. Black hair covered all but the interior of his face, which was pink, and the two tiny Dumbo ears that jutted from the top of his head. Sandy cried as his hands and feet grasped at her. She paid the Caseys $50,000 in cash, and a few days later, with Travis wrapped in baby blankets, the two of them boarded a flight home.

Back in Stamford, Sandy and Jerry played with Travis, who absorbed their smells and cues and began learning their language. Sandy bottle-fed him formula, burped him, put him down for naps in a crib in their bedroom. At 3 months, he turned over. Soon he was scooting, then walking on his arms and legs, his knuckles absorbing much of his weight. They taught him to use the toilet. They joined him in the bathtub. They brushed his teeth, and later taught him to brush his own teeth. Sandy bought him an extensive wardrobe and dressed him every morning.


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