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Travis the Menace

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Travis starting the lawn mower.  

Virtually everyone made light of the escapade downtown. The state Department of Environmental Protection was aware of what happened, and also that the Herolds were in violation of a new statute that required a permit to keep a primate over 50 pounds. But they determined that pressing any action would amount to a most likely unwinnable battle to “take custody of a local celebrity” and opted not to pursue the matter.

Stamford’s animal-control officer was more concerned. After contacting primatologists, she spoke with Sandy, arguing that Travis was by now a fully sexualized adult (chimpanzees in the wild have sex, nonmonogamously, as often as 50 times a day); that he had the strength of at least five men; that adult chimpanzees are known to be unpredictable and potentially violent (which is why all chimp actors are prepubescent); and that maintaining Travis for the duration of his five- or six-decade lifetime was not viable. Sandy seemed to pay an open mind to the officer’s warning but ultimately concluded that Travis had never exhibited even the slightest capacity for violence.

There was one piece of information, however, that Sandy chose not to share with the officer. Two years earlier, the Herolds had received a phone call from Connie Casey, the breeder in Festus. She explained how Travis’s parents, Suzy and Coco, had escaped their cages and, with a third chimp, run across the ranch to a nearby housing development, where a 17-year-old named Jason Coats and some friends were pulling into Coats’s driveway on their way home from the Dairy Queen. Coats claimed the chimps approached his Chevy Cavalier and trapped the teenagers inside, baring their teeth and rocking the car. Coats eventually got out, ran into his house, and grabbed a shotgun. Casey had by then arrived at the driveway and tranquilized Suzy, who was now, according to Casey and several eyewitnesses, sitting at the edge of the road, stoned, fingering the grass and flowers. Casey begged Coats not to shoot. He fired three rounds at Suzy; she died two hours later.

Following several neighbors’ testimony that the chimps were behaving playfully and had posed no threat, a jury found Coats guilty of property damage and animal abuse, and he served a month in jail. Coats nevertheless remained steadfast in his belief that the chimps were dangerous.

The Herolds stopped taking Travis out in public after the incident in downtown Stamford, and they spent most of their time away from work at home with him. One night, over takeout spaghetti dinners at the kitchen table, Travis was sulking. He was sitting next to Jerry, facing away from him. Jerry was eating heartily, after some dental work he’d had earlier in the day. Jerry and Sandy were trying to engage Travis.

“Daddy got his tooth fixed today,” Jerry said. “Look.”

Travis wouldn’t.

“Come on, Trav,” Sandy said. “Look at Daddy’s new tooth.”

Travis turned, glanced begrudgingly.

“Come on, Trav,” Jerry said. “Which tooth had a boo-boo? Which one?”

Travis looked finally. Jerry opened his mouth.

“Which one?”

Travis looked for a second before extending his long index finger. He placed the tip of it directly on Jerry’s left molar. Sandy and Jerry cheered: “That’s the one, Travis! That’s the one!” Travis’s lips curled open around his gleaming white teeth. He bounced in his chair and buried his face in Jerry’s chest.

“Show Daddy your teeth now,” Sandy told him. Travis looked at her, looked at Jerry, puckered his lips again, exposed his teeth, and tilted his head up toward Jerry. Jerry cheered.

“Show Daddy your big tongue now!” Sandy said. Travis opened his mouth and unfurled his giant pink tongue. Once again, they cheered. By now Travis could not contain himself: He smiled broadly and grunted, his shoulders shaking in silent laughter. He patted Jerry on the back. Finally he wrapped his long arm around him.

Occasionally, Jerry complained that he wasn’t feeling well. After playing with Travis one morning in March 2005, he went off to work, where his discomfort sharpened. He asked one of his employees to take him to the hospital.

Over the course of Jerry’s weeks-long stay, during which his doctors tried to arrest his rapidly spreading stomach cancer, Sandy spent virtually every minute at the hospital. One night he said he wanted to talk to her about Travis. He asked her what she would do if he were to die—if it were to become just her, alone with Travis. As much as he said it pained him, he urged her to send Travis to a sanctuary. He told her Travis was too much for her to manage alone. He said it was best for both of them.


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