The Animal Rights Issues in Travis the Chimpanzee's Life and Death

chimpanzee and woman on chair
Travis with Sandra Herold.

 On February 16, 2009, a 15-year-old male chimpanzee named Travis was killed. He was stabbed, hit with a shovel, and ultimately shot to death.

Travis had been around the block in the acting world: He had been in commercials and television shows, including for big brands like Old Navy and Coca-Cola. He had also appeared once on the Maury Povich Show and once on The Man Show. According to a police officer in the neighborhood where he was raised, he had been raised his whole life like a human child. 

Travis was killed after he attacked a companion of the woman he lived with, Sandra Herold. Travis mauled and ultimately blinded Herold's friend, Charla Nash, while also severing her hands, ears, and nose.

What went wrong? A chimp, raised with love in a home like a child, has no behavioral issues until one day he attacks someone viciously. 

Well, nothing went wrong. A huge, wild, powerful animal like a chimpanzee should never be kept as a "pet" in someone's home. 

Travis had apparently lived with Sandra Herold since he was three days old. He had been known around town as a well-behaved chimp. He was independent and attentive to Herold. 

Even though he was treated like one, Travis was not a human. And it's important to remember that no wild animals, despite how human they may seem, are actually people. They are their own species, capable of their own milestones, and meant to live freely. 

Here are some of the issues involved with keeping a wild animal as a "pet." 

Keeping Wild Animals in Captivity Is Inhumane

Although Herold may have thought she was giving Travis a good life, the truth is that keeping him in her home also kept him from living a free life. 

Chimpanzees are large, powerful, social creatures. They have a significant and complex social structure and like to be around other chimpanzees.

Chimpanzees also like to run around and have space. Sleeping in a bed, living in a house with other humans, doesn't give them this space.

Although it may appear to be "humane" to treat a chimp like a human, it actually robs the chimpanzee of the opportunity to live a normal, healthy life, free of human rules and boundaries that the chimpanzee wouldn't face in the wild. 

Housing a Wild Animal as a Pet Doesn't Allow for Natural Behaviors 

Chimpanzees usually live in large groups with other chimpanzees. These groups can range from 100 to 150 animals, but the important thing to note is that there are smaller sub-groups within these large groups, essentially like chimp families.

Usually, families have between three and 15 chimps, including adult males, adult females, and their children. 

Within this large group, there are member ranks. For example, an alpha male with specific characteristics like age and health, leads the entire community and is responsible for protecting the group and keeping order.

By stealing a chimpanzee from its natural habitat, humans also steal the ability of the chimp to live in a social structure that would feel natural to it, and exhibit behaviors—like aggression, which is often expected of male members of the group—which are normal to the species.

Imagine how you would feel if you were surrounded and raised only by creatures from another species, with whom you could not communicate, like, say, cats or dogs. Even if you were treated with loving kindness, you would still miss out on fundamental human interaction, with profound implications for not only your mental health, but your physical well being. It is the same for animals living in isolation from their species; a 1993 study showed that rats who lived alone developed a schizophrenia-like startle response.

Animals Used in Entertainment are Usually Treated Badly

Although we can't be sure how Travis was trained and treated to appear in the television shows and commercials he was, we do know that animals used in entertainment are often treated very poorly.

They are often beaten, kept in confinement, and sometimes even driven crazy by lack of attention and mental stimulation. 

Animals used in television or movies or even shows or print media are often not participating in human-like tasks because they want to—think of the elephant riding the bicycle—but instead are participating in these tasks because they've been physically pounded into submission.

Maybe Travis gleefully did whatever Herold told him to for his media appearances. But if he did, it's because he already had all the "chimp" trained out of him through years of living with humans. 

And other animals in entertainment aren’t often so “lucky.”

So did Travis the chimpanzee just "snap" after a lifetime of perfectly reasonable human behavior? 

Travis was raised in captivity, denied natural behaviors and social structures his entire life, and likely trained very hard to be able to appear in the media. 

He didn't snap because of a moment, he snapped because he was a male chimpanzee, to whom aggression is natural.

So what can you do? Don't support entertainment and media that utilizes animals in captivity and work hard to get legislation passed that restricts the keeping of any wild animals in captivity with humans. Only by doing this can we assure that we avoid more tragedies like this in the future.


  • Isolation rearing of rats produces a deficit in prepulse inhibition of acoustic startle similar to that in schizophrenia. (2003, March 14). Retrieved October 10, 2017, from
  • Khullar, D. (2016, December 22). How Social Isolation Is Killing Us. Retrieved October 10, 2017, from