STAMFORD, Conn. — Doctors say a Connecticut woman mauled by a 200-pound chimpanzee is making slight progress after more than seven hours of surgery by four teams of surgeons.
Dr. Kevin Miller of Stamford Hospital says 55-year-old Charla Nash suffered extensive facial and hand injuries when she was attacked Monday. He says stabilizing her condition took more than seven hours of surgery.
Nash was attended by hand specialists, plastic surgeons and specialists in orthopedics, ophthalmology and trauma.
Miller says it's good that Nash has made some progress, but she has a long way to go.
Nash was attacked by a 14-year-old domesticated chimpanzee owned by her friend, Sandra Herold of Stamford. Police shot and killed the chimp.
Earlier Wednesday, the owner of the domesticated chimpanzee backtracked on whether she gave the animal the anti-anxiety drug Xanax.
Sandra Herold told The Associated Press on Wednesday that she "never, ever" gave the drug to her 14-year-old chimp, Travis. However, Herold said in an interview aired Wednesday morning on NBC's "TODAY" show that she gave Travis the drug in some tea less than five minutes before he attacked Nash — she even showed a reporter the mug.
Police have said Herold told them that she gave Travis Xanax earlier on Monday to calm him because he was agitated.
In humans, Xanax can cause memory loss, lack of coordination, reduced sex drive and other side effects.
Dr. Emil Coccaro, chief of psychiatry at the University of Chicago Medical Center, said the drug can also lead to aggression in people who are unstable to begin with.
"Xanax could have made him worse," if human studies are any indication, Coccaro said.
Criminal charges possible
Stamford police have said they are looking into the possibility of criminal charges.
A pet owner can be held criminally responsible if he or she knew or should have known that an animal was a danger to others.
Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said Wednesday that a defect in Connecticut's laws allowed Herold to keep the chimp in her home, probably illegally. There are rules requiring large primates to be registered by the state, but officials have some discretion in enforcing them and violations carry only minor penalties, he said.
"This animal probably was illegally kept, so far as that statute is concerned," Blumenthal said. "Clearly, some kind of permission was necessary for this animal to be at that residence."
Authorities are trying to determine why the chimp, a veteran of TV commercials who could dress himself, drink wine from a glass and use the toilet, suddenly attacked.
Investigators said they were also told that Travis had Lyme disease, a tick-borne illness with flu-like symptoms that can lead to arthritis and meningitis in humans.
"Maybe from the medications he was out of sorts," Stamford police Capt. Richard Conklin said Tuesday.
Nash had gone to Herold's home in Stamford on Monday to help her coax the chimp back into the house after he got out, police said. After the animal lunged at Nash when she got out of her car, Herold ran inside to call 911 and returned with a knife.
After the initial attack, Travis ran away and started roaming Herold's property until police arrived and set up security so medics could reach the critically injured woman, Conklin said.
But the chimpanzee returned and went after several of the officers, who retreated into their cars, Conklin said. An officer shot Travis several times after the animal opened the door to his cruiser and started to get in. The wounded chimpanzee fled into the house and retreated to his living quarters, where he died.
911 tapes released
In 911 tapes released by police Tuesday night, Travis can be heard grunting as Herold cries for help: "He's killing my friend!"
The dispatcher says, "Who's killing your friend?"
Herold replies, "My chimpanzee! He ripped her apart! Shoot him, shoot him!"
"Hurry, please! He ripped her face off," she is heard begging.
After police arrived, one officer radioed back: "There's a man down. He doesn't look good," he says, referring to the disfigured Nash. "We've got to get this guy out of here. He's got no face."
Nash was in critical condition in Stamford Hospital on Wednesday.
Herold, a 70-year-old widow whose daughter was killed in a car accident several years ago, told "TODAY" that the incident was "a freak thing."
She said Travis "couldn't have been more my son than if I gave birth to him." She rejected criticism that chimpanzees are inappropriate pets.
"It's a horrible thing, but I'm not a horrible person and he's not a horrible chimp." she said.
Travis appeared in TV commercials for Old Navy and Coca-Cola when he was younger, and at home he was treated like a member of the family. Don Mecca, a family friend from Colchester, N.Y., said Herold fed the chimp steak, lobster, ice cream and Italian food.
Colleen McCann, a primatologist at the Bronx Zoo, said chimpanzees are unpredictable and dangerous even after living among humans for years.
"I don't know the effects of Lyme disease on chimpanzees, but I will say that it's deceiving to think that if any animal is, quote-unquote, well-behaved around humans that means there is no risk involved to humans for potential outbursts of behavior," she said. "They are unpredictable, and in instances like this you cannot control that behavior or prevent it from happening if it is in a private home."
Chimp got exemption
Connecticut law requires primates weighing more than 50 pounds to be registered with the state. But state Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Dennis Schain said Herold's chimp was exempted because it did not appear to present a public health risk and was owned before the registration requirement began.
Blumenthal, the attorney general, sent letters to legislative leaders and DEP Commissioner Gina McCarthy, asking them to support a proposed law that would ban all potentially dangerous exotic animals, such as chimpanzees, crocodiles and poisonous snakes, from being kept in a residential setting in Connecticut.
McCarthy is seeking a similar law banning large primates. Her agency is also asking the public, police officers and animal control officers who are aware of large primates being kept as pets to report the animals to the agency.
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