Mother Of The Year A Gorilla Named Binti Jua Gently Scoops Up An Injured Child And Snatches Hearts Around The World In The Process. Predictable Animal Behavior, Says One Expert. Genuine Compassion, Says Another.

Posted: August 26, 1996

President Clinton is in Chicago this week, but the town's hottest new celebrity weighs 165 pounds, has grayish-black hair, and loves attention.

No, not Ross Perot.

It's Binti-Jua, an eight-year-old western lowland gorilla at the Brookfield Zoo who became an instant celebrity 10 days ago when she saved a 3-year-old boy who fell into her enclosure. With her own baby clutching her back, the gorilla picked up the unconscious boy, cradled him in her arms, and gingerly carried him to a doorway where paramedics could reach him. The boy is expected to recover from his injuries.

Most of the world has heard the story by now. A video of the dramatic rescue was played on CNN, and journalists worldwide have besieged the sprawling zoo for information on the big ape. Attendance at Tropic World, the football field-sized exhibit where Binti lives in a replica of the African plains, has never been higher, according to zoo officials.

It is the sort of publicity Clinton can only hope for.

``It's incredible. It's all over the world,'' said zoo spokeswoman Linda Rucins. ``It's a good story, and it's making people feel good.''

People have been so moved by Binti's actions they have showered her with fruit and flower baskets and offered to ``adopt'' her. The zoo even received a fax from a University of Pennsylvania office saying ``Binti for President. Vote Primate.''

It is not only the public that is fascinated with this touching encounter between man and beast. The story has created a buzz in the world of primatologists, 1,400 of whom were at the University of Wisconsin in Madison for the International Primatological Society's annual symposium when the incident occurred.

``Everybody was very excited that there was an incident that focused attention not only on gorillas, which are an endangered species, but on the issue of animal thinking, which is what we were at the meeting for,'' said H. Lyn Miles, a primatologist at the University of Tennessee who has trained an orangutan, Chantek, to sign more than 200 words.

Though Binti's actions seemed so utterly human, so maternal, the consensus among primatologists was that Binti was just acting like, well, a gorilla.

``It's a predictable pattern of behavior,'' said Kenneth Gould, who works with primates at the Yerkes Research Center in Atlanta. ``Gorillas normally do not approach a strange individual aggressively. They are going to be curious. Usually they are quite gentle in their approaches.''

It helped that Binti, whose full name is Swahili for ``Daughter of Sunshine,'' was hand-raised by humans at the San Francisco Zoo. Born in captivity and rejected by her own mother, the gorilla was bottle-fed, carried in a sling, and cuddled much like a human infant.

She was so accustomed to humans that when she became pregnant at the Brookfield Zoo trainers had to teach her to care for a primate baby by giving her a gorilla doll to carry. Any nurturing behavior was rewarded, which experts theorize may have something to do with her recent heroics.

Members of Binti's adoring public may not want to read any further. But Melinda Pruett-Jones, the zoo's curator of primates, said as soon as the boy crashed to the ground, trainers signaled all seven gorillas in the enclosure to leave. Binti carried the boy to the door she normally goes out.

The trainers then sprayed high-powered water hoses at the feet of the other gorillas to keep them away from the boy, and directed them to another door.

It is apocryphal that Binti shielded the boy from the other gorillas.

``They were just paying attention to what their keepers were telling them to do,'' Pruett-Jones said. ``None of them were aggressive. They were probably frightened and confused.''

Binti ``was very gentle and she was very instinctively maternal in the way she carried'' the boy, she added.

Though Binti may have been responding to cues to leave, that doesn't explain why she took the boy with her. For many, it remains a glorious mystery, a reminder that there is much we do not know about the animal kingdom.

For instance, scientists have yet to pin down the extent to which animals think and feel emotions. In Binti's case, experts caution against anthropomorphizing her actions - ``We have to downplay the altruism a bit,'' said Gould - but say the rescue was more than just a clever stunt.

A remarkably similar incident occurred about eight years ago at a zoo in England, said John Kearns, director of the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center, which hosted the primatologists' symposium. When a little boy fell into a gorilla enclosure, a giant ape sat next to him, lifted his shirt, and gently stroked his back.

Many primatologists believe Binti's actions were a combination of her nurturing training and her natural gorilla problem-solving abilities.

Contrary to popular myths, gorillas are intelligent and peaceful beings that live in families and care for one another's young. They become violent only when provoked or when hunting. Even a ferocious chest-beating display by a large silverback, though hair-raisingly frightening, rarely gets confrontational.

The boy who fell into Binti's pen was not a threat because he was motionless. If he had been screaming or wildly running around, things might have turned out differently, the experts said.

Primatologist Miles said she believes gorillas have the intelligence and emotions of a 3- or 4-year-old child. Her own ape, Chantek, can show empathy, among other emotions, she said. When Miles showed up with a bandage around her foot, Chantek dabbed it with a paper towel and signed the word hurt.

``Lots of apes raised with humans can show caring behavior. They can come to the aid of others, and they can also mediate,'' she said.

Elephants, too, are believed to have strong emotions. For instance, when a family member dies, elephants grieve as a group, taking turns investigating the corpse with their trunks and not leaving it for several days.

``It's rather compelling to say that's evidence of sorrow,'' Gould said.

There are other well-documented incidents of animals actively protecting humans or displaying mysteriously heroic behavior. Just last month, a man from England was swimming alone in the Red Sea when he was attacked by a shark. Three bottlenose dolphins suddenly appeared around him, drove off the shark, and encircled him protectively until he was rescued.

Stories of dogs not leaving their injured masters are legion and often celebrated in heart-plucking Hollywood movies.

For Jeffrey M. Mason, author of When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals, these tales are proof that animals have feelings on a par with humans.

``I don't think you can train a gorilla to save a baby. I think it's genuine compassion,'' said Mason, a psychoanalyst whose next book is on dogs' emotions, which he believes are even more intense than humans'. ``We rarely get to see this because we don't live in an environment where there is interaction between gorillas and humans.''

What makes the incident even more touching, he said, is that humans have historically treated gorillas so badly, hunting them for meat or cutting off their paws for ashtrays.

For Mason and countless others like him, the story of Binti resonates for one reason, and one reason only.

``I think [Binti] made the connection between [her] baby and this baby that is in trouble,'' he said. ``It came straight from the heart.''

And touched so many others.

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