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Travis the Menace

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Travis with a Stamford police officer.  

As another group of officers set out into the woods to look for him, Travis scampered unnoticed into the house. Leaving a trail of blood, he knuckle-walked through the kitchen, the bedroom, and into his room. Then he grasped his bedpost, heaved forward, and died.

Charla Nash’s injuries were overwhelming. Travis had bitten or torn away her eyelids, nose, jaw, lips, and most of her scalp. He’d broken nearly all the bones of her facial structure. He’d fully removed one of her hands and virtually all of the other. He’d rendered her blind.

And yet she did not die. Three days after the attack, in critical condition, Charla was flown by specialized jet from Stamford to the Cleveland Clinic. Fifteen months of intervention followed.

One month after the attack, her family filed a $50 million lawsuit against Sandy.

Sandy was alone.

After weeks of blistering coverage, journalists from around the world—who, hoping to coax Sandy out of the house, had left her flowers, coffee, and sympathy notes—had finally moved on. The reporting had included many inaccuracies, such as the unsubstantiated assertion (which Sandy never disputed) that Travis was the same chimpanzee who had appeared in the iconic Old Navy ads of the nineties and on The Maury Povich Show. The New York Post had accused Sandy of “weird jungle love” and all but said that she and Travis had sexual relations. Even after the press mob had lost interest in her chimp, the allegation that hurt her most was that she’d cared more about Travis than Charla. “I stabbed my own son,” she cried to friends on the phone. For a long time, inside her house, she refused to clean up his blood. She sat a gigantic stuffed chimpanzee in the leather chair in his room.

“I just—you just—you can’t imagine,” she sobbed into the phone late at night. “They cut off his head!” She was referring to the last time she’d seen Travis, when she’d gone to the crematorium to drop off his favorite tie-dyed T-shirt and discovered he’d been decapitated for rabies testing.

She tried to reconstitute her life. She visited occasionally with friends, and made trips to the casino. She continued shopping—much of it for clothes for her three grandchildren that she would end up never sending—until her house became impassable. She sat at her kitchen table and leafed through stacks of mail, old letters, old pictures, doodling Sue’s name on the back of envelopes. She tuned in nightly to Bill O’Reilly. She talked—and cried—on the phone incessantly; the subject was almost exclusively Travis. One of her daughter’s friends helped her set up a profile on Match.com; she went on a date with an elderly Stamford man who appalled her by requesting oral sex as they were having dinner.

In the end, all that was really left for Sandy were animals. She put bowls outside for the raccoons. She fed deer in the yard from her hands. And she found another chimpanzee. His name was Chance. She knew she could never bring him back to Connecticut, so she contributed money to a friend out of state, and the two women were to assume a kind of joint custody. One spring day, she sat on a couch in the woman’s mobile home. Chance, about a year old, stretched his young, long body out across her lap. Sandy tickled his belly. He climbed all over her. The two of them snuggled and played. They opened their mouths wide and put them up against each other’s. Sandy’s makeup ran with her tears.

Back in Connecticut one day last summer, shortly before sunset, Sandy was alone, outside, feeding the animals. She looked up. A cloud formation resembling a fish’s backbone was unspooling against the sky. She found her camera, held it up, and clicked.

Sometime later, her chest began hurting. The pain came on quickly and intensified. Frightened, she called a friend, who drove over to her house to sit with her. A hot bath provided no relief. The friend called 911. She put Sandy in her car, in her pink bathrobe and slippers, and drove her down Rock Rimmon Road, to meet the ambulance on its way.

At the ER, tests determined Sandy’s aorta was bulging. She was prepared for emergency surgery. In the operating room, two hours in, Sandy’s lungs filled with blood.

And then they were all gone. All the Herolds were dead.

Last May, Charla Nash was transferred to a long-term assisted-living facility outside Boston. The innumerable cosmetic surgeries she has undergone have accomplished little cosmetically. On her 56th birthday, nine months after the attack, in what will undoubtedly go down as one of the most extraordinary moments in television history, she revealed her face—a bulbous surface of transmogrified skin—to Oprah Winfrey; she told Winfrey she remembers nothing from the attack and is disinclined to worry about how others see her. “I just look different,” she said. “Things happen in life that you can’t change. It’s a tragedy.” She is financially insolvent; her brothers and a team of representatives are apparently shopping two book ideas and weighing several movie deals on her behalf. Her daughter is in her freshman year of college. Through Brigham and Women’s Hospital, she is hoping to become the world’s first face- and double-hand-transplant recipient.


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