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April 2009 Issue

Chimpanzees, like this one living in a sanctuary, where the subject of the manuscripts written by sociology and psychiatry expert Linda Chernus.
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Chimp Behavior Mimics That of Abused Human Kids

Published April 2009

When Linda Chernus heard about a chimpanzee attack in Connecticut that left a woman fighting for her life in a hospital, her thoughts went back almost four years and thousands of miles away to a chimp sanctuary near Girona, Spain.

Chernus, a clinical social worker and professor of clinical psychiatry at UC, worked for four days at MONA, a sanctuary for abandoned and abused chimpanzees, in July 2005. 

Drawing on her experiences there, she wrote two manuscripts that were published in December 2008 in the Journal of Emotional Abuse.

The papers drew parallels between the chimps, many of whom had experienced maternal loss and social isolation after being taken from their native habitats, and human children who had been emotionally abused and neglected.

“We can learn from nonhuman primates about creating therapeutic environments for children who have been emotionally abused,” Chernus says.

MONA created an enriched family unit, Chernus says, by grouping a mother chimpanzee with five children—three of whom were not biologically her own—and adding a male chimp who had lost his mate.

The male and female—both of whom had been in captivity before coming to MONA—bonded well and nurtured each other, and the female emotionally abused and neglected. nurtured all five of the children as if they were her own, Chernus says.

“The important thing is to have an environment that’s enriched, ideally with siblings and peers,” Chernus says of the chimps. “It felt like home, so they were able to develop.”

Abuse of chimpanzees isn’t confined to physical abuse or being locked in cages, Chernus says.

“Humanization”—being dressed in clothing, or made to perform like children—is also a form of abuse, she says.

“People think it’s cute to dress little chimpanzees,” she says. “It may be cute for the people, but it’s really abusive. It’s a disruption of their normal lifestyle—what they need to grow and prosper. They’ve been traumatized by being humanized.”

The chimpanzee in the attack, known as Travis, starred in television commercials when he was younger, according to news reports about the incident. He had been born in an Arkansas compound in 1995 and was raised in the Stamford, Conn., household of Sandra Herold after his mother was shot and killed following an escape and rampage when he was three days old.

He attacked Charla Nash, a friend and employee of Herold’s, on Feb. 16, 2009, as she was trying to help lure him back into Herold’s house.

Herold has speculated that Travis attacked Nash because she Girona, Spain. Chernus, a clinical social worker and professor of clinical psychiatry at UC, worked for four days at had changed her hairstyle and was driving a different car.

Nash lost her hands, nose, lips and eyelids in the attack and suffered significant traumatic brain injury, according to the Cleveland Clinic, where she was transferred from Stamford Hospital. Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic performed the nation’s first face transplant in December 2008, but a statement from the hospital said it was too early to consider reconstructive surgery for Nash.

Travis was shot and killed by police following the attack. Chernus has been following news of the attack and is highly critical of Herold and a legal system that allows chimpanzees to be kept as pets.

“What she did is extremely bizarre; it’s very unfair to the animal, unfair to anybody,” Chernus says. “I was also surprised that the legal system had allowed that to go on for so long.”

Connecticut officials say they were aware that Travis lived in the Herold home but existing law did not give them the authority to remove him.

Since the attack, legislation has been proposed by the state attorney general that would ban primates, alligators and other types of wild and potentially dangerous animals from private homes.

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