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Chimp attack no surprise to local expert

The founder of an ape and monkey sanctuary in Jessamine County said she pleaded with Connecticut chimpanzee owner Sandra Herold in 2003 to put her animal into such a facility — more than five years before last week's nationally reported attack on a friend.

April Truitt, director of the Primate Rescue Center near Wilmore, said she called after Travis the chimp escaped from Herold's vehicle and stopped traffic in downtown Stamford, Conn.

"I spoke with her after the 2003 incident and begged her to consider putting Travis in a sanctuary at that time," Truitt said. "She was clearly not ready to even consider it.

"We knew that she knew that he was a ticking time bomb, and she needed to find somewhere for him to live out his life," Truitt said. "She, however, was not ready to consider that."

Truitt said Herold's statement at the time was "He can't live with other chimps. He can't live without me."

Herold, who has reportedly stopped doing interviews, could not be immediately reached for comment Tuesday. Authorities have not said whether Herold will face criminal charges.

On Feb. 16, Travis mauled Herold's friend Charla Nash before police shot and killed the 14-year-old, 200-pound chimp. Nash is being treated for injuries to her face and hands at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

Chimpanzees can live to be more than 50 years old, and many chimp owners get rid of the animals when they become too much to handle at 6 or 7 years old, Truitt said.

"The world is full of folks who have realized that, but it's also full of chimp owners who have not yet been bitten enough and do not realize that, and Sandy Herold was unfortunately of that school," Truitt said. "She was not going to give up Travis, no way, nohow. It was an accident waiting to happen."

Truitt estimates that there are 225 to 235 privately owned chimps around the country.

"I have made it my, I guess you could call it, hobby over the years, to track and follow and account for all the privately owned chimps in North America," Truitt said. "And when I heard 'Stamford,' I knew it was Travis and I knew it was Sandy Herold. She has been on our radar for quite some time. It's my world, and I study it and I keep up with it."

Founded in 1987, the Primate Rescue Center is a non-profit, licensed sanctuary for abandoned apes and monkeys. Funded through private donations but not government money, the center now has 11 chimpanzees, which romp around an outdoor enclosure that is 100 feet long, 24 feet high and 30 feet wide. The center also has 40 monkeys of various species.

Truitt said she did not specifically offer the Primate Rescue Center as a new home for Travis. It would not have been a good idea to introduce a new adolescent into the Jessamine County group.

"They probably would not have accepted him," Truitt said. "It would have been a little bit like going to a new middle school for Travis."

On Tuesday the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Captive Primate Safety Act, which would add chimpanzees and other animal primates to the list of "prohibited wildlife species" that cannot be sold or purchased across state lines. Travis, for example, was born in Missouri and shipped across Connecticut state lines to be a pet. The bill now goes to the Senate.

The House passed a similar bill last year but the Senate did not take it up.

Proponents say the bill is a critical step in helping states ban primates as pets. But Truitt has doubts. "It's better than nothing, which is what approximately 30 states have right now," she said. But if the bill becomes law, it will affect few dealers in exotic animals.

"Dealers are not one bit concerned about this," Truitt said. "They know that they still can continue to do what they were doing. Most dealers are USDA licensed, and the USDA licensing has been and is used by private owners rampantly to circumvent state and local legislation."

The legislation will not affect the Primate Rescue Center. Truitt said the center is more affected by a 2005 amendment to state fish and wildlife regulations that added all primates to a list of animals that are illegal to import into Kentucky.

The amendment "actually prohibits us from bringing additional animals in," Truitt said. "We made the conscious decision to support that and to argue in favor of it ... knowing that it would keep all the bad guys from bringing in additional wild animals like any non-human primates."