It happened on Aug. 16, 1996, in the days before everyone had a cell phone that could capture video. Yet someone did record the moments after the child got away from his mother and fell into the ape pit at Brookfield Zoo.
The child lay lifeless for a few minutes until Binti Jua, then 8 years old, gently picked up the unconscious boy and cradled him in her arms, then handed him over to zoo keepers.
The boy was taken to Loyola University Medical Center and made a full recovery.
But on Aug. 16, 1996, one little boy was too eager. He climbed over a barrier and fell more than 20 feet.
A zoo visitor captured an image of the 3-year-old’s lifeless body lying on the exhibit floor, but it’s what happened next that captured hearts.
A female gorilla named Binti Jua, with her own baby on her back, picked up the child and carried him to safety. Workers who were there said it’s an image they will never forget.
“She was somewhat protective, too. Part of the video, she takes the child and sort of turns a shoulder to the other gorillas,” zoo worker Jay Peterson said.
“She carried him up around this part of the exhibit, through the river, made a right turn … went over to that log,” zoo worker Craig Demitros said. “She was gently kind of rocking the kid in her right arm.”
After being rushed to the hospital, the child made a full recovery. The story and images were carried around the world, making Binti Jua an international sensation, and a hometown hero to many.
“Hey O, she saved him. That gorilla over there saved a little boy your age,” zoo visitor Susan Ryan told her son on Tuesday. “She picked him right up O, and she kept all the other gorillas away.”
For those who didn’t know the story, like Julie Asper and her family, the thought of a gorilla saving a child seemed unbelievable until they saw the video for themselves.
Asper said she believes the gorilla knew what to do “because she’s a mother – maternal instinct. You know what to do. You care for young, it doesn’t matter if they’re yours or not.”
Zookeepers said Binti Jua was raised by humans, so she was more “people-oriented,” and that could have played a role in her gentle handling of the child.
They also said it was fortunate that the child was unconscious because had he been moving or crying he might have been perceived as a threat.
The video was shown around the world and Binti Jua was acclaimed as a hero. She remains in good health at Brookfield.