03/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Creatures of the Wild

When I was a child, a well-heeled woman cradled a doll as she roamed our New York City neighborhood. She fed her from an empty bottle, burped her, comforted her.
"What's wrong with her?" I asked my mother.
"Poor thing," my mother said. "Maybe she lost a child or couldn't have one."
"I don't understand."
"She thinks the doll is real."
"But why?"
"Just stay away from her," my mother said. "She's not right."

This imagery of delusion returned yesterday with Travis the Chimp who mauled Charla Nash, was ultimately shot and killed by the police, and first stabbed by Sandra Herold, his owner, in an attempt to save her friend. Herold is now under scrutiny - and why she has agreed to appear in the media baffles me, although perhaps she needs the forum as public defense, explanation, and even catharsis. I don't think it's the irresistible 15 minutes of fame.
With this incident, I recalled the strange woman who looked so "normal" except for the solace of the doll which wasn't in the realm of acceptable behavior. I didn't heed my mother's warnings: I stared - a voyeur in her world of fantasy. The depths of the woman's delusion didn't resonate back then: how the doll kept her strangely sane and somehow sated. She was grossly fascinating and pitiful.

Most disturbing and now redolent of the "doll lady" is the notion that Herold describes Travis as her "son." Never mind that Travis' talent clearly provided an income for the widowed Herold: What went deeper? Of course, there are animal rights issues surrounding the humanity, if you will, of keeping a wild creature in a human environment - not in front of a computer, a television, drinking wine, using a Water Pik, dressing and grooming himself, and using the toilet as a human would.

Yes, there are animal rights issues, but what about the issue of Sandra Herold? What about her psyche and emotional state went unnoticed and unexamined? Is it true or false that Lyme disease had somehow compromised Travis neurologically, and caused his sudden outburst of violence? Did Herold's administering Xanax as a panacea for Travis' anxiety become the trigger? (Did he also have a glass of wine as we humans have cocktails to calm our nerves?) But more - what about Herold's propensity for treating Travis as a human? Dog owners know that human analgesics should not be given to our PETS for pain relief. What was Herold's "disconnect?"

Chimps have DNA eerily similar to that of humans - but their brains are half the size of ours, and they are known to attack one another - territorial creatures that they are. I don't blame Herold or Travis: I feel for both in the same way that my eight-year-old heart and soul pitied the woman with the doll (although the doll was plastic and harmless). Travis, strapping at 200 pounds, was potentially dangerous. And I ask how much of a danger was Herold to herself in what I perceive as a deeper delusion? Was Travis' presence in Herold's life her only way to quell a need that was otherwise unfulfilled? And in the end, she not only lost her "child," but her dear friend Charla Nash was also mauled beyond recognition.

How is Herold managing these two significant losses? And then there is the piece where Travis, wounded and bloodied, returned as animals do to his living quarters - a comfortable, safe, and familiar place to die.

Walter, our dog, is eerily connected to me. If I am sad, he is mournful. When I am sick, he takes to his bed (or mine). If someone threatens me, he postures his 14 pounds between me and the offender, puffing out his chest. As I box up belongings for our impending move, he appears nervous and puzzled. I love Walter. But the boundaries are firm: Walter is my dog, my pet - not my child. Walter's instincts are powerful - but they are instincts, not thought processes. Perhaps Travis' instincts were powerful as well....stemmed wine glasses and toilets notwithstanding. Poor Travis: he acted appropriately as a chimp.

We (and animal activists) reproach those who take in wild animals as pets. Exploitation: Point well taken and agreed. I have never liked zoos where we gawk at animals who should be living their lives as nature intended, and not for human amusement. But what about the humans who raise non-domestic animals as though they have a magical power to tame the wild? What about those who raise animals as children? People in my neighborhood wheel small dogs in strollers, dressing them in coats, while many children shiver in the cold without proper winter clothing. A woman chastised me on a cold day last week, "You don't have a coat for that dog?" I wanted to say that Walter's natural coat acclimates quite well to the seasons. Instead, I walked away.

While we take up the causes of animals who should be neither house pets nor "children," perhaps we should address the fragile psyches of the owners. Where are the activists for human mental health - an arena that still remains anachronistically taboo?

The homeless man outside my building wields beer bottles and shouts invective as he tosses the money-back treasures into a rickety grocery cart. The man wears a T-shirt when the temperature is freezing, and dons a plastic bag when it rains. The police say he's harmless - until he attacks someone. And then he'll become a criminal rather than someone who needed help a long time ago and fell through the cracks of the system. Like Travis, he could even be shot as intervention. Unlike Travis, I bet he will have no familiar place to go when it's his time to die.