20 years ago, a female gorilla saved a child who fell into her zoo enclosure

On May 28, Harambe, a Western lowland gorilla, was killed by workers at the Cincinnati Zoo after dragging around a child who fell into his enclosure. Harambe’s death sent shockwaves of mourning around the world, and quickly became a long lasting internet meme.

But a story from two decades ago shows how different things could have been.

On August 16, 1996, Chicago’s Brookfield Zoo had a similar scene. A toddler fell 15 feet into a habitat with seven gorillas, according to the Chicago Tribune. One gorilla, Binti-Jua, picked him up and cradled him like a p
ietà. He carried him to the enclosure’s doorway and gently set him down for the paramedics. She knew that a gorilla enclosure wasn’t the place for a little boy.

Binti Jua screenshotNews and Entertainment/YouTubeBinti-Jua holding the child.

Binti-Jua — who is still alive, at a healthy 28 years old — is the same type of gorilla as Harambe: a Western lowland.

As with Harambe today, the story of Binti-Jua received a lot of attention at the time, according to the Tribune. She was praised for her maternal nature. A Chicago grocer offered her 25 pounds of free bananas. Dozens of citizens offered to adopt her.

“She picked up the boy, kind of cradling him, and walked him around,” Sondra Catzen, a zoo spokeswoman, told the Tribune at the time. The boy was unconscious when Binti-Jua picked him up. He didn’t know he had a saviour until he woke up in front of the paramedics. He later made a full recovery.

Binti-Jua had a sad upbringing. Her name means “daughter of sunlight” in Swahili (Harambe’s means “comong together” in the same language). But her mother, in the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, treated her indifferently. She was cradled and raised by human handlers and other gorillas in her enclosure.

Eventually, Binti-Jua became a hero. The story of Binti-Jua is still known in the annals of the Brookfield Zoo.

Her story stands in stark contrast with Harambe’s fate.

“That’s my baby! That’s my baby!” the mother screamed when her son fell into Harambe’s enclosure. It sent a chill through the crowd.

“The gorilla’s got my baby!” the mother of the child who fell into Binti-Jua’s said twenty years earlier, according to People.

In Harambe’s case, the gorilla didn’t protect the child. He stood over him for some time, then grabbed him by the ankle and dragged him through the water, across the floor of the enclosure.

The zoo workers decided to kill him, for the safety of the child.

Whether Harambe deserved to die is debatable, but that’s what happened. Nonetheless, this tale of two gorillas is an example of what happens when a child falls into the enclosure of a Western lowland gorilla. Sometimes the gorilla is gentle, and becomes a hero. Sometimes the gorilla is not, and becomes a martyr.

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