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Gentle Giant Binti Jua Saved Toddler At Chicago Area Zoo 20 Years Ago Today

By Linze Rice | May 30, 2016 2:29pm | Updated on August 16, 2016 9:11am
 Top left: Binti Jua cradles the little boy before placing him near a door where zoo keepers could get him. Bottom: Binti Jua in April 2016 at Brookfield Zoo.
Top left: Binti Jua cradles the little boy before placing him near a door where zoo keepers could get him. Bottom: Binti Jua in April 2016 at Brookfield Zoo.
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DNAinfo/Linze Rice; Facebook/Brookfield Zoo; Screenshot

CHICAGO — Twenty years ago, in an eerily similar situation to the horror that played out at the Cincinnati Zoo this past spring, a 3-year-old boy fell into Brookfield Zoo's gorilla exhibit as stunned onlookers could do nothing but watch.

But rather than ending in tragedy, as the incident in Ohio did for Harambe the gorilla, the story of the young boy and the gorilla he encountered outside Chicago became a legend.

Binti Jua, the gorilla, in fact, became a superstar.

In Cincinnati, workers made the quick decision to shoot and kill a rare, 17-year-old western lowland gorilla named Harambe after a 3-year-old boy climbed and fell into the gorilla enclosure on May 28. The male gorilla dragged the boy around by his leg through shallow water as frantic onlookers watched in horror.

In 1996 at the Brookfield Zoo, there was a far different outcome.

The 3-year-old boy fell into Brookfield Zoo's "Tropic World: Africa" gorilla pit, only to have a miraculous encounter with then 8-year-old Binti Jua, also a Western lowland gorilla. 

The female gorilla, with her own child on her back, came to the boy's rescue. With stunned onlookers watching and gasping, she famously picked up the limp, unconscious boy. She cradled him and carried him to an exit door and to safety, becoming an international superstar overnight.

People still come to Brookfield Zoo and ask about Binti Jua, who remains at the zoo. 

It was a hot afternoon on Aug. 16, 1996, when the blond-haired boy with white shorts and a red shirt ran ahead of his family and accidentally fell over the railing, first onto a planter, then to the concrete floor of the exhibit landing on his rear end, said Craig Demitros, the zoo's associate curator of primates.

In all, he fell about 24 feet, Demitros said.

Home video that would later explode in the media showed Binti Jua picking the boy up and carrying him in one arm while her baby daughter Koola rode on her back.

She sat and cradled the boy in her arms, something she was taught to do as part of her maternal training, and eventually put him down near a door leading down to her underground enclosure.

According to the New York Times, the boy was awake when headed to the hospital, but was then listed in critical condition. He spent several days at Loyola University Medical Center before being released and making a recovery, according to reports.

His identity was never publicly revealed.

It's become the zoo's "claim to fame," Demitros said, but the panic and uncertainty of how the situation would unfold was also very real that day — something he said he hopes to never experience again.

After footage of the incident became public the day after, Demitros said the zoo was flooded with visitors and media, all trying to get a glimpse at the gorilla who saved the toddler.

Demitros said it was also the quick work of zoo staff, the advantage of having an on-site ambulance and pure luck that played a role that day.

After the boy fell, Demitros said he immediately called in a "Signal 13," meaning there was a danger or potential danger inside one of the enclosures.

People were screaming and panicking along the walkways above, and quickly the zookeepers opened the door to an underground room where the gorillas sleep — signaling for them to leave.

As Binti cradled the boy, she heard the sound of the door opening and, too, began to follow.

Zookeepers used powerful hoses to spray water near the gorillas so they would stay away from Binti and the boy, although some witnesses reported they thought Binti was "protective" of the toddler.

Many also wanted an explanation for Binti's seemingly instinctive actions, he said.

Readers of Newsweek had named Binti the "Hero of the Year" for 1996, and she was showered with gifts from visitors around the world.

When President Bill Clinton and then-First Lady Hillary Clinton were in town, they made sure to give Binti a shout-out.

The simple explanation for Binti's actions, Demitros said, go back to her being hand-raised by humans and bottle-fed as a baby, making her comfortable around people.

"It's very sad that the child fell in the [Brookfield Zoo] exhibit," Mary Ellen Kerr, a gorilla keeper who bottlefed Binti Jua as a baby, said in an episode of the Travel Channel's "When Vacations Attack." "But I was happy that people realized that gorillas are not mean, aggressive animals, and they can be very tender."

Binti Jua, whose name means "daughter of sunshine," was born in March 1988 and arrived at Brookfield in February 1991 for breeding purposes, according to the zoo's website.

Kerr, who worked with Binti Jua as a baby at the San Francisco Zoo, said Binti had a close relationship with humans.

"Binti was very comfortable in the presence of people," Kerr said. "She had people around her 24 hours a day ... She was, let's face it, a little spoiled from being hand-raised."

In February 1995, a year before the boy fell into her exhibit, Binti Jua gave birth to her first baby, Koola, named after a mythological creature known as a "Koolakamba," thought to be half-gorilla, half-chimpanzee.

A timeline of gorillas at the zoo notes the famous incident in August 1996 as simply: "A 3-year-old boy accidentally falls into the gorilla exhibit and Binti Jua carries him to safety."

In September 2004, Binti Jua became a grandmother when Koola gave birth to Kamba (and again in November 2013 when Koola had Nora, 2) and a great-grandmother in 2015 when Kamba gave birth for the first time, marking four generations in the same family currently at the zoo.

In May 2005, Binti Jua gave birth to a son, Bakari, whose name means "one who will succeed" and was named as part of a contest. In July 2011, he was transferred to the St. Louis Zoo.

Other notable members of her family include an aunt, Koko, who is able to extensively communicate in American Sign Language with both humans and other gorillas.

For those who had close ties to the first terrifying, then relieving moment 20 years ago, the incident was a shining example of how gorillas don't always live up to their scary stereotype.

Reportedly, the boy who was rescued returned a few times to the zoo to see his rescuer.

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