Charla Nash seeks primate safety act: I don't want it to happen again

Charla Nash, the Connecticut woman who received a face transplant in 2011 after a horrific attack by a friend’s pet chimpanzee, has traveled to Washington, D.C. to advocate for the passage of legislation that would make it harder for people to keep primates as pets.

Nash, who lost her nose, eyes and lips in the 2009 chimp attack, realizes that no legislation can completely halt the exotic animal trade. “I hope it slows down the transporting of them from state to state,” she said in a phone interview with TODAY.com. “The sad part is that a lot of these people have money and can afford to buy an exotic pet and [after the pet has grown too large]they turn it loose into the wild. And then someone is going to get hurt. I don’t want what happened to me to happen to anyone else."

  • Slideshow Photos

    A new face for Charla

    Charla Nash was severely disabled after she was attacked by a friend's chimp. See how she looked before, and what she looks like now, after a face transplant.

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    Charla Nash, of Stamford, Conn., is pictured in an undated photo before being attacked and mauled by a friend's pet chimpanzee. On Feb. 16, 2009, after Nash arrived at Sandra Herold's house to help her lure her pet, Travis, back into the house, the animal attacked her, injuring her eyes, lips, nose and all of her fingers save for one solitary thumb. Now permanently blind, Nash has received a full face transplant, the third surgery of its kind performed in the United States.

    Courtesy of Nash Family
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    Travis, a pet belonging to Sandra Herold, weighed 200 pounds and was 10 years old when he mauled Charla Nash. Here's he's shown sitting in the corner of his playroom at Herold's Stamford, Conn., home in 2003.

    Kathleen O'rourke / AP
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    This gated driveway led to Sandra Herold's home where Charla Nash was attacked and mauled by Travis, a pet chimpanzee on Feb. 16, 2009. Police say Travis had gotten out of the house and so Nash, a friend of Herold's, came over to help lure him back inside. 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.

    Douglas Healey / AP
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    Charles Willinger, an attorney, puts his hand on the shoulder of Michael Nash, the brother of Charla Nash, after a court hearing April 13, 2009 in Stamford, Conn., for a lawsuit against Sandra Herold, the owner of the chimp.

    Douglas Healey / AP
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    Stamford police officer Frank Chiafari testifies in Hartford, Conn., on Feb. 25, 2010, before state lawmakers about the need to reform workers compensation laws. Chiafari says he was traumatized after shooting a rampaging chimpanzee to death after it mauled and blinded its owner's friend about a year ago.

    AP
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    Charla Nash prior to the May 2011 face transplant.

    Brigham and Women's Hospital via Reuters
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    During a 20-hour surgery in May 2011, Charla Nash received a full face transplant at Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston. At the same time, she also underwent a double hand transplant, which ultimately failed to thrive and had to be removed. Shown, left to right, are Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of the plastic surgery transplantation program at Brigham and Women's Hospital, Dr. Danial Alam, of the Head and Neck Institute at Cleveland Clinic, and Dr. Julian Pribaz, the associate chief of plastic surgery at Brigham and Women's Hospital.

    EPA
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    Less than 24-hours after Charla Nash's face transplant, surgeon Dr. Bohdan Pomahac allowed her brother, Steve Nash, and daughter, Brianna, to visit her in the intensive care unit of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston.

    J. Kiely Jr. / Lightchaser Photography via Brigham and Women's Hospital
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    Dr. Bohdan Pomahac, director of the plastic surgery transplantation program at Brigham and Women's Hospital, speaks with Charla Nash on July 5, 2011.

    J. Kiely Jr. / Lightchaser Photography via Brigham and Women's Hospital
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    Charla Nash's daughter, Briana, said her mother "looks fantastic," after her face transplant. “You’d never believe something like that could be done. She looks just like everyone else," she told TODAY's Ann Curry in an exclusive interview.

    J. Kiely Jr. / Lightchaser Photography via Brigham and Women's Hospital
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    Meredith Vieira speaks to Charla Nash and her daughter, Briana, about her recovery and her new hopes following her May, 2011 face transplant.

    Bizuayehu Tesfaye / NBC
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    Charla Nash in November, 2011: Nearly three years after the horrific chimp attack that almost killed her, and six months after a 20-hour face transplant operation.

    Bizuayehu Tesfaye / NBC
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    L-R: Charla Nash before the 2009 chimp attack; after the attack; shortly after her May, 2011 face transplant; and in November, 2011. The donor face has begun to mold to Charla's underlying bone structure, and in another year doctors say it should look totally natural.

    Courtesy of Nash Family, Reuters
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    Charla Nash arrives with her brother Stephen, left, for a hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn., on Aug. 10, 2012. Nash who was mauled in a 2009 chimpanzee attack is attending a hearing to determine whether she may sue the state for $150 million in claimed damages.

    Jessica Hill / AP
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    Charla Nash, right, talks with attorney Bill Monaco before a hearing at the Legislative Office Building in Hartford, Conn., Friday, Aug. 10, 2012.

    AP
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    Charla Nash poses for a portrait at her home on March 13, 2014.

    Brandon Goodwin / TODAY
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    Charla Nash, a former professional barrel racer, wears her cowgirl hat. Nash, along with the Humane Society, is urging Congress to support the Captive Primates Safety Act.

    Courtesy Shelly Sindland

Meanwhile, Nash, one of the first face transplant recipients in the United States, is getting stronger every day as she works out on weight machines.

“The last time I talked to the TODAY Show I thought I was strong,” she said. “But once I started some more training on equipment I realized how weak I’ve been. I have good days and bad days. But I’m feeling stronger and more energetic.”

Nash looks remarkably like her former self, except for a slightly crooked smile. Still, she misses her independence.

“I need someone to help bathe me and to clean my eyes and brush my teeth and feed me,” she said. “There’s lots of things I can’t do. When you are out in the world you see more of what you can’t do.”

Nash is scheduled to appear at a news conference Thursday with representatives of The Humane Society of the United States, which is urging Congress to support the Captive Primates Safety Act. Current legislation outlaws the transport of animals such as lions and tigers across state lines to be used as pets. The new legislation would add nonhuman primates to the list.

She will also meet with members of Congress in hopes that her story might convince them of the need for the new legislation. “I hope that my story will make an impact,” she said.

Approximately 25 states prohibit people from keeping some or all primates as pets, according to the Associated Press. John Goodwin, director of animal cruelty policy at the Humane Society, told the AP that buyers can skirt those laws by purchasing primates from exotic animal breeders they find online or at large exotic animal auctions. 

In 2012, Nash received $4 million from the estate of the chimp's owner, Sandra Herold. Earlier this year the Connecticut General Assembly denied Nash the ability to sue the state in court to cover additional medical costs. 

As for the future, Nash isn’t sure what it will bring. “I only take it day by day,” she said. “My hope is that all stays well. I can’t work and so I am living off of Medicaid in Massachusetts.”

Nash would like to be a model of hope for others with devastating injuries.

“I’m hoping that someday I might go to Walter Reed and meet the wounded warriors there, the men and women in the service,” she said. “And maybe I could show them how I’ve done.”

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