STAMFORD -- Stamford police say they are taking their time before deciding whether the woman who raised a chimpanzee that mauled her friend on Monday will face criminal charges.
It remains unclear what charges 70-year-old Sandra Herold could face in the attack at her North Stamford home by her 14-year-old, 200-pound pet named Travis.
But the day after the victim, 55-year-old Charla Nash, was transferred to an Ohio hospital famous for a facial transplant, police continued to look into prescription antidepressant Xanax and its role in the case. They say Herold admitted in her first statements after the attack that she gave Travis the drug to calm him before Nash arrived at her Rockrimmon Road house.
Herold called Nash to help bring the chimpanzee back inside after he had let himself out, police have said. When Nash arrived, he attacked her, ripping off most of her face and damaging her hands, according to 911 tapes and doctors' reports.
Herold speculated that Travis was being protective of her and attacked Nash because she had a different hairstyle, was driving a different car and held a stuffed toy in front of her face to get the chimp's attention.
Herold later said she did not give Xanax to Travis. It is not clear whether giving the animal the drug is a crime, nor whether it sparked the attack.
But the administration of the drug, if not itself a crime, is part of what the courts would have to investigate in determining whether
Herold is responsible for the attack by either acting recklessly or negligently, said Linda Meyer, a law professor at Quinnipiac University School of Law.
A charge such as reckless endangerment, for example, requires that someone "recklessly engages in conduct which creates a risk of physical injury to another person," according to state statute.
"One could hold her responsible for being negligent in causing this attack if she had some notice the chimp was not in her control or if there's something she could have done that she didn't do," Meyer said.
Most animal attack cases involve dogs, she said. A 2001 case in which two dogs attacked and killed a woman in a San Francisco apartment building led to a second-degree murder conviction for one owner, Marjorie Knoller, 53. Her husband, who was not at home when the dogs attacked, was convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
"If you are reckless, that is . . . you're aware of a risk and ignore a risk, and your animal causes death, that's manslaughter," Meyer said. "Recklessness or risk can get you to manslaughter pretty quickly."
There is no ban on keeping primates as pets, and the state Department of Environmental Protection granted Herold a special exemption to keep the pet after a 2004 law change required primate owners to apply for agency approval.
DEP officials have said they determined at the time there was no evidence of a compelling public safety risk.
"We felt the animal had appropriate care and, again, there's a responsibility there that goes directly to the owner of the animal," said Edward Parker, chief of the state DEP's natural resources bureau.
The special exception may complicate potential charges, Meyer said.
"The state really knew that she was keeping the chimp, and they really didn't seem to have a problem with it," she said.
Bill Monaco, an attorney representing Nash's family, said Friday it's too soon to comment on the possibility of a lawsuit.
"Basically she has made some progress," Monaco said. "The fact that she was even able to be transferred is good news. I don't believe they would have transferred her there if she was fighting for her life."
A lawsuit is "virtually certain" if Herold has assets, said Fordham University law professor Jim Cohen. He predicted a lawsuit would be successful against Herold, who owns a tow truck business.
"She was on notice that this chimpanzee was, over the course of time, getting crankier and crankier, getting less controllable, and she didn't do anything about it," Cohen said.
Monday's attack was not the first time Travis bit someone, although it was the most serious incident. Two people said this week that Travis bit their fingers in 1996 and 1998, once hard enough to draw blood.
Police say they have no record of any complaints about Travis, aside from a 2003 incident in which the chimp escaped from a vehicle and led Stamford police on a two-hour downtown chase before he was caught.
Herold's neighbor, Jessica Peterson, said Friday that she believed the state should have taken action against Herold years ago. She said she wasn't told when she moved into the house in 2005 with infant twins that Herold owned a chimp.
"I can't imagine what would have happened on a different day," Peterson said. "It makes me ill to think about it."
Should Nash and her family sue, the question of negligence does not matter if the courts determine the chimpanzee was a wild animal, instead of a domesticated one, said Robert Ellickson, a law professor at Yale Law School.
Ellickson said he was aware of only one chimpanzee attack case in Florida in 1972.
"That court held that it was a wild animal," he said. "If an animal is wild, in most jurisdictions, there's strict liability."
That would make an owner responsible unless there is evidence the victim did something to provoke the animal, he said.
He also said that even if Nash knew Travis was rambunctious that day, as has been reported, it does not necessarily mean that she took a reasonable assumption of risk.
"This was a traditionally tame and good-natured chimp," he said.
Herold, who did not return a call seeking comment, has not said whether she has an insurance policy to cover such an attack.
"This is a case where, if I was the insurance policy for the homeowner and my policy covered this, I would be looking to settle," Ellickson said.
Nash's family has not announced plans to sue.
"When you have a case like this, a civil lawsuit is bound to follow such a horrific attack," said Darnell Crosland, an attorney in Stamford who said he believed the strict liability law should apply in this case.
He said U.K. law requires owners of wild animals to be licensed and maintain a liability insurance policy.
"The law of liability may be gray in this state, but not so gray in other states and places around the world," he said.
Meyer said she is not sure the courts will have to determine any of these questions.
"I'm not sure that I would prosecute this case necessarily," she said. "I'm not sure I would sue. It's just a terrible tragedy."
Meanwhile, Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal has called the state's laws regulating exotic animals unclear.
"What's really needed is a ban, which the legislature could enact, or the (DEP) commissioner could do by regulation," he said.