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Planet Earth

By Barbie BischofJanuary 1, 1997 6:00 AM


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One Friday afternoon last August, a three-year-old boy visiting the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago decided he wanted a closer look at the gorillas. He wiggled away from his parents, clambered over a railing, and fell into the enclosure. Knocked unconscious by the 20-foot fall, he lay helplessly on the ground.

Moments later, one of the gorillas, Binti Jua, with her own 17- month-old infant riding on her back, walked over, gently picked the boy up and carried him to a door where she was accustomed to seeing her keepers. We arrived about 20 seconds after the boy had fallen, says chief keeper Craig Demitros. Demitros’s crew used fire hoses to direct Binti and the other gorillas out of the enclosure, after which paramedics tended to the boy--who escaped with a broken hand and some bruises. The story made news around the world, with many of the reports citing Binti’s behavior as evidence of remarkable compassion and understanding.

But that behavior is not typical of gorillas, says Demitros. Binti was raised by humans and even got maternity training--keepers used a stuffed animal to teach her parenting skills. In spite of this background, her response to the boy might have been decidedly less gentle had he been conscious. If he had been kicking or screaming, says Demitros, it might have been different. Gorillas are very intelligent and very social, but like any other animal, will defend themselves when they feel threatened. Even the keepers don’t go into the enclosure with the gorillas. They are, after all, wild animals, says Demitros.

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