Wild animals are not people; only people are people

The lion lay down with the lamb in the Garden of Eden. But that was a long time ago. 
Denyse O'Leary | 18 March 2009
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Sandra Herold and Travis in happier daysWhat goes on in the minds of animals? How much can we know?  We focus on the question when a beloved pet suddenly, and horrifically, turns on its keeper or a visiting friend?

Sandra Herold runs a towing company which employed Charla Nash, 55, as a dispatcher. Herold also owned a 15-year-old, 200-pound chimpanzee, known as Travis, whom she is said to have treated more like a son than a pet:

"He couldn't be more my son than if I gave birth to him," ...

The chimp was known to the public because he appeared in commercials for Old Navy and Coke, and reportedly appeared in television pilots. On February 16, Travis (who had a less celebrated history that included violence) was acting anxiously. Herold asked Nash -- a personal friend -- to come and help settle the animal. But Travis suddenly attacked Nash, lunging at her face and hands.

Herold hit the animal with a shovel and then stabbed him with a kitchen knife several times but could not stop him. She then called 911 for help, explaining that Travis had ripped off Nash's face. (Nash's injuries were so severe that initially she was assumed to be a man.)

Travis knew how to open car doors - and that was his undoing. He opened the door of a police cruiser and attacked the officer - who immediately drew a handgun and killed him.

"I used to buy everything for him -- filet mignon, lobster tails, Lindt's chocolate," Herold said.

Nash's injuries were grievous. We are told, "even the doctors and nurses and technicians who battled to save her life were shocked," -- which is significant considering that, in their line of work, they must see many victims of motor vehicle accidents, domestic violence, and crime.

According to the Cleveland Clinic, which is treating Nash, March 5,

In the attack, she lost her nose, upper and lower lips, eyelids and the bony structures in her mid-face. She also lost both of her hands. While these wounds have been stabilized, critical issues still remain related to a significant traumatic brain injury and injuries to her eyes that threaten her vision

She may also be blind and suffer brain damage, and officials are not offering great hope for her improvement. She could be a candidate for a face transplant.

Herold wants the world to know that she is not a "horrible" person and that Travis is not a "horrible" chimp. According to her, it is a "freak thing.

Looking at the story from a traditional Christian perspective, I would pass on the question of whether Herold is a horrible person. I agree that Travis is not a horrible chimp. The very idea is an irrelevance; he is a chimp, period, and therefore not responsible for his actions.

But this incident was not a freak event. A wild animal kept in an urban environment may suddenly and unexpectedly rampage (which is why questions have been raised about pet ownership laws in the wake of this incident). All too typically, the stories sound like this:

Bitten by a white tiger

Siegfried and Roy’s close encounters with big cats dazzled Las Vegas crowds for more than 30 years until things went horribly awry on Oct. 3, 2003. While performing at The Mirage, a 7-year-old male tiger named Montecore bit Roy on the neck, inflicting critical injuries. The question of whether the tiger actually attacked Roy remains in dispute. Siegfried has said that the tiger merely tried to drag Roy to safety after Roy fell on stage. On his way to the hospital, Roy reportedly said, “Don’t shoot the cat.” (They didn't.) In February 2009, the team staged a brief and haunting final performance for charity with the infamous Bengal tiger.

In the 2008 film Semi Pro, the fight with a bear was strictly for laughs. But that bear suddenly killed his trainer in April, while filming a promotional video.

Many people like to walk on the wild side and keep exotic pets, and it's understandable, in a way. Maybe, we would all like to "get back to the Garden." But in reality, we can rarely determine what animals are thinking -- even if the animals were raised in captivity.


Dogs and cats are not typical animals. They are very unusual, in that they are well adapted to living with and communicating with us humans safely and effectively. That's hardly a surprise; they have been bred that way for many thousands of years. Dogs, for example, are genetically very close to wolves and can interbreed with them, but dogs have little in common with wolves psychologically, in the ways that matter to humans. Similarly, your lazy fireside cat has little psychological space in common with, for example, a wild bobcat.

Years ago, philosopher, Thomas Nagel of New York University published a very influential essay, "What is it like to be a bat?", in which he observed: "The best evidence would come from the experiences of bats, if we only knew what they were like."

Exactly, and it can be a life-threatening form of hubris to imagine otherwise.

Denyse O'Leary is co-author of The Spiritual Brain.

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