When a toddler fell into a zoo enclosure 20 years ago, he was saved – by a gorilla

Days after a young boy fell into the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati zoo – prompting the zoo’s decision to shoot and kill a 17-year-old gorilla — archived video has emerged showing a similar incident 20 years ago, with a very different outcome.

In summer 1996, a rambunctious 3-year-old boy slipped away from his mother and squeezed through a barrier at the Brookfield Zoo in Illinois, plummeting more than 15 feet into a pit holding several gorillas. One of them scooped up the toddler, cradled him, carried him to paramedics – and gained international fame.

WGN-TV posted the footage of the moment Binti Jua, a rare western lowland gorilla who was then 8 years old, picked up the boy after he fell to the concrete floor. Witnesses said Binti Jua mothered him for several minutes while toting her own 17-month-old baby on her back, according to WGN-TV.

“She picked up the boy, kind of cradling him, and walked him around,” zoo spokeswoman Sondra Katzen told the Chicago Tribune back in 1996. Katzen added that the boy was “was alert and crying when the paramedics came and got him.”

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The boy, whose name was not released, had a broken hand and minor cuts, but he recovered, WGN-TV reported.

The situation on Saturday started in a similar way: A 3-year-old boy climbed through a barrier to the gorilla exhibit at the Cincinnati Zoo & Botanical Garden and fell into a moat in the enclosure, according to the zoo.

But it progressed differently. Zoo Director Thane Maynard told reporters that a male gorilla named Harambe “went down and got” the boy and started to drag him.

“It seemed very much by our professional team, our dangerous-animal response team, to be a life-threatening situation,” Maynard said over the weekend. “And so the choice was made to put down, or shoot, Harambe.

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“And so he’s gone.”

The incident ignited uproar, with some people criticizing the zoo’s decision to put down the gorilla and others pointing fingers at the boy’s parents for not supervising the child. The Hamilton County prosecutor’s office later announced that it will meet with local authorities following a police investigation into the matter, though it is still unclear whether – or against whom – any criminal charges would be filed.

The child’s family, which has been declining interview requests, released a statement Wednesday morning, saying that the small boy was “doing well” and asking people to remember the gorilla that lost its life.

“We continue to praise God for His grace and mercy, and to be thankful to the Cincinnati Zoo for their actions taken to protect our child,” the family said in the statement to the Cincinnati Enquirer. “We are also very appreciative for the expressions of concern and support that have been sent to us.

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“Some have offered money to the family, which we do not want and will not accept,” the statement said. “If anyone wishes to make a gift, we recommend a donation to the Cincinnati Zoo in Harambe’s name.”

As debate over the incident continued, Ian Redmond, a biologist and conservationist who says he has worked with gorillas for some 40 years, penned an op-ed published in the Guardian on Tuesday, suggesting that the zookeepers may have had other options, such as using tranquilizer darts or distracting the gorilla with a treat.

Killing animals, he said, should always be a last resort.

In the wild, Redmond said, mature male gorillas known as silverbacks do “strut and display their strength,” sometimes by dragging things, including humans, across the forest floor. In a concrete jungle, he said, such a display can be more harmful.

“My immediate response to the news was a deep sense of regret and sadness,” he wrote. “Watching the shaky phone video, it is clear that the child was understandably frightened and the gorilla understandably stressed, but in the video shown on the news websites, Harambe did not attack the child. He pulled the child through the water of the moat, at one point held his hand – apparently gently, stood him up and examined his clothing.”

Redmond added: “Clearly if a silverback wanted to kill a child, he could do so in an instant. But he didn’t.”

However, Redmond said, zookeepers were faced with a tough decision.

“Without knowing what happened in the seconds leading up to the lethal shot, we are not in a position to judge the outcome,” he wrote in the Guardian. “I can imagine the panic of the child’s mother and the fear of the zoo staff. For a man with a gun thinking a child is in danger, it is a tough decision and the zoo is standing firmly behind their use of lethal force.”

Redmond referenced the 1996 incident and another, in 1986, when a 5-year-old boy who fell into an ape pit at Jersey Zoo in the United Kingdom. In both cases, the animals protected the boys.

The video from 1996 shows Binti Jua carrying the limp boy while zookeepers spray water from above to keep the other gorillas in the exhibit from interfering.

“I feared the worst,” Jeff Bruno, a paramedic who ran to the zoo’s primate exhibit, told People magazine at the time. “I didn’t know if she was going to treat him like a doll or a toy.”

Binti Jua had been abandoned and raised by humans, and when it came time for her to be a mother, trainers taught her how to care for a baby gorilla using dolls, a zoo curator told the Chicago Tribune at the time.

“She was better than we expected,” her keeper, Craig Demitros, told People. “She’s a great mom now.”

Experts were asked why a gorilla might show compassion to a human child: Could her own upbringing have played a role?

“She saw this thing lying there,” Jack Hanna, who was director emeritus of Columbus Zoo, told People, “and she knew from humans taking care of her that they could take care of this problem.”

Still, the gorilla’s reaction to the small boy left some experts in awe.

“I could not believe how gentle she was,” Celeste Lombardi, who helped raised Binti Jua, told the magazine in 1996. “I just had chills. I was very proud.”

Binti Jua still lives at the Brookfield Zoo, where she is among four generations of western lowland gorillas.

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