Charla Nash arrived at Sandy Herold’s house as she usually did. They’d been close friends for years. Little did she know this visit would change her life forever. As soon as Nash stepped inside, Travis, a 14-year-old chimpanzee that Herold owned, launched at her, throwing her to the floor. Travis mauled and ripped off Nash’s hands, her lips and eyelids. Horrified by the situation, Herold grabbed a butcher knife and stabbed Travis several times. Would that be enough to make the agitated chimp stop, or would it just make him more violent?
Chimps are one of our closest living relatives. We share about 98.7% of our DNA. They’re brilliant, they’ve learned to use tools and, apart from us, they’re the only species that exhibit warlike behavior and execute coordinated attacks on each other. When they attack, they’re vicious, going for the victim’s face, hands and genitals. Today we’re going to show you three terrifying accounts of people who experienced a chimpanzee’s rage and lived to tell their stories. What should you do if you spot a chimp? How could you use your legs against the raging animal? And how could a shoe save your life?
Number 3: Two Against One
Andrew Oberle was a graduate student at the University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA) in 2012. While leading a tour through a South African chimp sanctuary, he stepped onto a rock near the electrified fence that kept the wild animals in. A pair of male chimpanzees grabbed Oberle by his foot and tried pulling him into their enclosure. Despite his efforts to fight them off, both chimps squeezed through the space made by his body and viciously mauled him in a public area. The animals were likely trying to defend their territory since the student stepped into an unauthorized zone close to their enclosure. It took armed guards to get things under control, including having to wound one of the chimps. Oberle was left on the ground with his skull and facial bones exposed. He lost fingers on both hands. His right arm was broken. And his left arm was practically shredded. His feet also had to be amputated, which caused him major psychological distress. He was an avid marathon runner and thought he could never run again. Fortunately, that wasn’t the case. After a long recovery, he resumed running and completed a marathon in 2022.
Number 2: No Games in Chimp Territory
In 2014, Dunia Sibomana was eight years old. He was playing with his younger brother and a cousin near a Congolese nature preserve when a pack of chimpanzees attacked. They killed his four-year-old sibling and cousin. Sibomana survived, but the ruthless encounter left his face disfigured. He also lost his finger and a part of his ear. He was left with trouble speaking and eating. Let’s take a moment to see what we can learn from these unbelievable stories. If you cross paths with a chimp, back away slowly. If an attack is imminent, cover your face with your arms to protect your eyes and head. A chimp’s arms and teeth are its lethal weapons. You can try to muzzle its mouth by shoving your shoe or a piece of clothing in it. Try to kick the chimp off you. Your legs are much stronger than your arms, so you have a better chance of defending yourself.
Number 1: A Not-So Friendly Encounter
Let’s go back to Charla Nash’s story. She was lying underneath the animal. Her face was almost completely gone and even after her friend, Sandy Herold, stabbed the frenzied animal, the mauling continued. Herold called 911 and operators could hear Travis’ wild shrieks. When help arrived, Travis pulled open a police car’s door and displayed his blood-covered fangs. Finally, an officer shot and killed the chimp. The brutal attack went on for 12 minutes and was likely triggered by Herold giving him a dose of Xanax earlier in the day. He was also on medication for Lyme disease. In addition to that, Nash had changed her hairdo, and Travis might have thought she was an intruder. Nash was left blind. She also required several reconstructive surgeries and a face transplant. But she survived. These three extraordinary human beings survived an unfortunate encounter with these deadly beasts.
- How Strong Is a Chimpanzee? Hawks, J. (2009). Slate.
- Chimpanzees: Intelligent, social and violent. Pester, P. (2021). Live Science.
- Revisit the horror of Travis, the bloodthirsty chimpanzee. Rex Brown, S. (2014). Daily News.
- UTSA grad thriving in life ten years after chimp attack. Price, R. (2022). News4 San Antonio.
Boy mauled by chimp in Congo to get facial reconstruction surgery. CBS/AP (2016). CBS News.