HARTFORD, Conn. -- Charla Nash says she still can't remember the brutal attack by a chimpanzee that tore off her face and hands and blinded her on Feb. 16, 2009 -- but she recalls the moment she finally heard a recording of the horrifying 911 call from that day.
People around the world have heard the chimp's owner, Sandra Herold, pleading on that recording with a dispatcher to "send the police up with a gun" to shoot her rampaging, 200-pound pet, Travis, but when Nash heard it on the news, what caught her ear wasn't Herold's frantic voice.
"All I heard was the chimpanzee screaming in the background," she said in an interview with The Hartford Courant week.
That isn't literally true, Nash acknowledged -- "I heard her saying, 'Help! You have to get here, and my chimpanzee's killing my friend' " -- but what she noticed most was "I kept hearing a screaming in the background ... the chimpanzee screaming."
Listening to the recording may be the closest she has come to reliving a moment of unspeakable horror, but Nash spoke about it with calm matter-of-factness in a 40-minute conversation recently at the Boston-area rehabilitation facility where she is recovering.
She casually demonstrated her ability to smile, to a limited degree, with the face that she received in a highly publicized transplant from an unidentified donor last May 28 at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.
"Every day my muscles get better. I can smile." One side of her mouth went a little higher than the other. "It creases up here," she said, gesturing with a forearm in the direction of her mouth.
Asked if it feels different, she said, "No, I just feel like it's my face; it's just not working real good."
Nash, now 58, talked of dividing her days between rigorous physical rehabilitation, frequent talks with her brother and 20-year-old daughter -- either in visits or on the phone -- and a newfound leisure activity. "I like listening to books on tape, and I'll sit and listen to those."
In a wide-ranging interview that touched on God, the governor, missed sunrises, legal matters and looking forward instead of back, Nash displayed an optimism that, although it sometimes wavered in mid-sentence, seemed to endure.
"I don't know what the future's going to bring ... so I don't get my hopes up," she said. "I mean, I hope someday I can live in my own house ... and I'm hoping I can have horses again, like I used to have. I don't know. I don't know if, when, how, why ... you know."
Nash has been fitted with a pair of glass eyes -- brown ones -- and the impression is that she's in a visual lock with the person she's talking to. Her speech is a little careful and slow, but generally understandable. Her stride is hesitant, and she walks with a person at her elbow.
She's looking forward to another operation to give her new hands. A double transplant failed last year.
Part of her current therapy regimen is to gain weight, she said; she is quite thin, which accentuates her height of 5 feet, 10 inches. And she needs to build strength, especially in her arms. On her left arm, where no part of the hand remains, "it's going to be like putting 5 pounds of weight on it."
"And this one will be a little easier," she said, moving her right forearm that has part of the hand -- and just the thumb -- remaining. She said she has full sensation in the thumb.
"They actually reattached that thumb. It kind of goes sideways. You know how normally your thumb goes along your index (finger)? ... Well, mine goes down. They put it on sideways."
Asked if she's got any idea how much all of this is costing, she said: "I know my health is in millions of dollars -- millions. I don't want to owe everyone for the rest of my life, and I don't want to be a burden on everyone the rest of my life."
She said her brother and her lawyers -- the Bridgeport firm of Willinger, Willinger & Bucci -- are taking care of such matters, and want her to concentrate on recovering. "My main objective is getting strong and healthy."
Her team of lawyers and a New York public relations firm offered the interview at an important moment in their pursuit of her legal interests. Similar media interviews have been granted in the past.
Nash has a $50 million lawsuit pending against the estate of Herold, who died in May 2010.
But there is another, potentially bigger legal front of immediate concern to Nash: Her lawyers have a request pending with the state's claims commissioner for permission to pursue a $150 million lawsuit against the state for allegedly failing to protect the public -- including herself -- from a dangerous animal.
The state has "sovereign immunity" against most lawsuits unless such permission is granted. "I hope that I do get my day in court," Nash said.
The office of the state's attorney general has opposed Nash's request to the claims commissioner -- first under Richard Blumenthal in 2010, and more recently under current Attorney General George Jepsen -- saying that "any duties" by the state to regulate dangerous animals "were duties owed to the general public, and not to any particular individual."
That means a private individual such as Nash cannot recover damages from the state "for injuries alleged to have occurred through breach of a duty owed to the public at large," two assistant attorneys general said in a 2010 letter. "(T)his office's legal duty and the state's is to assure that taxpayers not be burdened with compensation for injuries they in no way caused."
Nash's lawyers, Charles J. Willinger and Matthew D. Newman, have disputed that in a letter of their own. They pointed to a state law prohibiting ownership of primates Travis' size as pets, and said the agency that enforces the law -- now called the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, or DEEP -- had "received specific reports and complaints" about the danger posed by Travis at Herold's Stamford home. Four months before the attack, a state environmental official had said in a memo that the situation with Travis was "an accident waiting to happen."
If their request to sue the state in Nash's behalf were denied by Claims Commissioner Paul Vance, an appointee of Democratic Gov. Dannel P. Malloy, that decision could be appealed to the legislature. Nash's lawyers have hired a well-connected lobbyist -- Kevin Reynolds, who is legal counsel for the state Democratic Party -- for $60,000 to represent her interests in the matter at the state Capitol.
The pending legal case was the subject that most animated Nash during the interview with The Courant.
She recalled an incident in 2003 when the chimp got loose and roamed Stamford.
"No one could control him," Nash said. "He ran amok until he got tired. So that, right there, was a signal (that) there's something wrong with this picture. And then they allowed her to take him home."
Nash said "there was a known danger in a residential area that they left unmonitored and unchecked." For the state to say it's not responsible, she said, "doesn't sound very fair."
"It's kind of amazing that they would let that happen," Nash went on. "With a dog, you've got to keep him on a leash. Animals have to have rabies shots. How come he was excluded? ... And here he was like the size of a gorilla. ... Why would they write a law and not enforce it? ... They made a law that he was dangerous and that he should go. And then they're saying ... you're on your own."
The chimp Travis had a different reputation before the attack. Herold and her husband, who died in 2004, brought him to their North Stamford home soon after his birth in 1995. They owned towing and sheet-metal fabrication businesses, and sometimes took Travis to work. It's been widely reported that Travis was Herold's constant companion and that they took baths and slept together. The chimp reportedly brushed Herold's hair and even drank wine from a stemmed glass.
The Courant asked DEEP, the environmental agency, about the law banning primates weighing more than 50 pounds as pets in Connecticut. The attorney general's office has said it was "unclear" whether state officials had the authority to "remove a privately owned chimpanzee." Nash's lawyers say the state was "mandated by statute" to remove Travis, but did nothing.
It is up to DEEP to decide whether to issue permits for individuals to own such animals, but the agency would not comment on whether it had been legal for Travis to live in the Herold home.
DEEP spokesman Dennis Schain said in an email: "This was a tragic incident, and we continue to express our sympathy to Ms. Nash and wish her the best in her recovery. Because the matter is in active litigation at the Claims Commission, we will withhold further comment. The Office of the Attorney General will shortly be submitting a motion to dismiss the claim setting out the state's legal position in detail."
Nash never got to talk to her friend Herold after Feb. 16, 2009, the day of the attack, when Herold had called her to try to get the roaming 14-year-old animal back into her Stamford home.
"I wish I could have talked to her, but I needed to get healthier and stronger, and then she had passed away," Nash said.
Asked what she would have said to Herold, Nash said: "I think I would have told her I'm sorry all this happened. You know, (there's) nothing we can change now, and just hopefully everything going forward ends up well."
Her feelings are mixed about Herold. Nash said she "would have liked to really know how she felt. On one hand, I think she really, really felt bad. But on the other hand, she would revert back to just losing her chimp, and that was all she was concerned about. ... I think she was a troubled person."
What does she miss about life before the tragedy?
"I was a great shopper, a great bargain hunter, and I can't do that anymore. I can't look at my daughter and see how nice she looks. I used to wake up in the morning with the sunlight. I don't get that anymore."
"It's changed my life dramatically," she said. "I have to depend on a lot of help. I can't change myself. I just can't walk anywhere by myself. My life depends on really not being alone. ... I used to be very independent."
But, she said, "I'm very happy that I'm here. I find it remarkable and absolutely amazing that I could be sitting here talking to people. I thank God that I've had the opportunity."
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