No charges planned in chimp attack case

Image: Chimpanzee
Travis the chimp was shot dead by police after it attacked a woman who showed up at the owner's home.Kathleen O'Rourke / AP file
/ Source: The Associated Press

A Connecticut woman who owned a chimpanzee that mauled and blinded a woman won't be charged because there's no evidence she knowingly disregarded any risk the animal posed, a prosecutor said Monday.

State's Attorney David Cohen said it wasn't evident that Sandra Herold of Stamford had been deliberately reckless in handling the animal. He said state officials did not share their safety concerns about the chimpanzee with Herold and did not enforce a permitting requirement.

The 200-pound chimpanzee, who had been given the anti-anxiety drug Xanax, went berserk on Feb. 16 after Herold asked Charla Nash to help lure him back into her house. The animal ripped off Nash's hands, nose, lips and eyelids.

Cohen said that there was no record of the animal attacking anyone previously, and that it had interacted with Nash many times before the attack.

The decision not to file charges "does not in any way minimize the horror that we all feel with what occurred and with the horrendous injuries suffered by Ms. Nash," Cohen said. "Our prayers go out to her and her family."

Nash, who revealed her heavily disfigured face last month on "The Oprah Winfrey Show" and NBC's "TODAY" show, remains in stable condition at the Cleveland Clinic.

Nash's family said they understood the decision and are "at peace" with it. They said it does not affect the civil lawsuits that are pending.

"A criminal prosecution could not undo what happened to Charla nor would it provide any measure of relief or assistance to her," the family said in a statement issued through their attorney, Matt Newman. "The family remains focused on what is most important, and that is the continued care and rehabilitation of Charla."

Events 'unforeseeable'
Herold welcomed the decision. She said her ownership of Travis complied with state and local laws.

"Ms. Herold maintains that the tragic events that took place on February 16, 2009, were unforeseeable to her," her attorney, Robert Golger, said in a statement. "She wishes the best for Charla and her family."

Nash's family is suing Herold for $50 million and wants to sue the state for $150 million. Nash's family has said Herold was negligent and reckless for lacking the ability to control "a wild animal with violent propensities."

A biologist for the state Department of Environmental Protection warned officials before the attack that Travis could seriously hurt someone if he felt threatened, noting that he was large and strong.

But Cohen said Monday there's no evidence those concerns were conveyed to Herold. "She was thus never made aware of the danger posed by keeping the chimpanzee in a residential area," he said.

He also said DEP did not enforce a permit required after the law was changed in 2004 that limited exemptions to primates not weighing more than 50 pounds.

"I am making no judgment as to the actions of DEP," Cohen said. "If there was confusion and lack of communication by the very agency tasked with enforcing the laws concerning the possession of wild mammals, it would be difficult to prove that Mrs. Herold possessed the requisite knowledge of the risk posed and that she consciously chose to disregard it."

DEP officials declined to comment, citing pending legal claims.

Workers' comp claim?
Herold's attorney has called the attack work-related and said her family's case should be treated like a workers' compensation claim. The strategy, if successful, would limit potential damages in the case and insulate the chimp owner from personal liability.

Test results showed that Travis had the anti-anxiety drug Xanax in his system. Cohen said it is impossible to say what effect, if any, the drug had on the animal.

The chimp, which was shot and killed by police, had also escaped in 2003 from his owner's car and led police on a chase for hours in downtown Stamford. No one was injured.

Records obtained by The Associated Press through an open-records request show the state began receiving warnings immediately after that event.

Nash's attorney has said the environmental department had information for at least five years that would have allowed the agency to remove Travis from the home.

Environmental protection officials have said that during the 13 years Travis was with Herold, the agency received only a few inquiries about the chimp among thousands in general about possession of wild animals.

They said the memo from the biologist underscored the need for a clear, new law that would forbid ownership of potentially dangerous animals as pets and impose stiff penalties for those possessing them, and they blamed the failure to act on a communications problem and a lack of expertise in exotic animals at the agency.