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Old Footage Shows Gorillas Rescuing Children Who Fell Into Their Pits

People will never fully understand what Harambe - a Western lowland gorilla who lived at the Cincinnati Zoo - was thinking when a small boy fell into his enclosure on Saturday. But many are mourning Harambe, and questioning whether zoo officials really needed to shoot him to save the boy.

Two past incidents where a child fell into the animal's enclosure show gorillas actually coming to the rescue of the children in peril.

"We know of two cases, Jersey Zoo in the U.K. and a zoo in Chicago, where a person falling into a gorilla enclosure was actually saved by a gorilla," Gisela Kaplan, an adjunct professor at the Center for Neuroscience and Animal Behavior at the University of New England in Australia, told The Dodo. "These events shed a light on gorilla behavior even in captivity."

When a 5-year-old boy fell into the enclosure of a gorilla named Jambo at the Jersey Zoo (now Durrell Wildlife Park) in 1986, the boy lost consciousness. Jambo stood between the boy and the other gorillas; the action was interpreted as a gesture to protect him from harm. Then, Jambo stood over him, stroking him until he regained consciousness, at which point Jambo retreated. No one was harmed.

The Chicago incident occurred at the Brookfield Zoo in 1996. A 3-year-old boy fell into Binti Jua's enclosure and she protected him, while carrying her own baby on her back.

But Jambo and Binti Jua became famous for their benevolent acts.

And now their stories are resurfacing in light of the tragedy at the Cincinnati Zoo, making people wonder whether Harambe's fate could have been otherwise. Many who have pored over the spotty footage have pointed out that Harambe didn't seem to be aggressive.

"He pulled the child through the water of the moat, held his hand, apparently gently, stood him up and examined his clothing," Ian Redmond, a founder of the the Great Apes Survival Partnership (GRASP-UNEP) and advisor to the Born Free Foundation, said. "My immediate response to the killing of Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo gorilla, is a deep sense of regret ... It's clear that the child was understandably frightened and the gorilla understandably stressed but ... Harambe did not attack the child."

Still, because the video does not show the whole incident, Redmond said he was "not in a position to make a definitive judgement."

Kaplan urged a thorough investigation of the incident, to see why Harambe had to die. (The Cincinnati police announced Tuesday that they will be investigating the incident.) "Since the tragedy has happened, the zoo should be pressured into reviewing and publicly explaining its safety standards for people and children, and enclosures," Kaplan said. "[The zoo] should be asked to explain and show what its protocols are in dealing with animals in emergency situations such as this was, and be questioned on its ethical standards."

Kaplan pointed out that gorillas can get through crisis situations unharmed. "Many other positive inducements [methods] can be used," she said. "Then there are negative inducements such as restraints (nets), tasers, pepper sprays - another zoo had successfully used fire hoses to contain their animal."

But the zoo stands by its decision. "We are heartbroken about losing Harambe, but a child's life was in danger and a quick decision had to be made by our Dangerous Animal Response Team," Zoo Director Thane Maynard said in a statement. "Our first response was to call the gorillas out of the exhibit. The two females complied, but Harambe did not. It is important to note that with the child still in the exhibit, tranquilizing the 450-pound gorilla was not an option. Tranquilizers do not take effect for several minutes and the child was in imminent danger. On top of that, the impact from the dart could agitate the animal and cause the situation to get much worse."

Ron L. Kagan, executive director and chief executive officer of The Detroit Zoo, a leading institution for animal welfare, also weighed in. "Gorillas in general have no interest in being aggressive to a human child, but if you have a gorilla in a stressful situation, with people screaming, a gorilla could get disoriented and harm a child," Kagan told The Dodo. "But I doubt the gorilla had the intention to harm the child."

But Kagan cautioned that the compromises involved in conserving endangered species - such as breeding rare animals in captivity and making zoos available to visitors - are very complex, making this particular incident hard to judge from a distance. "I wasn't there and not being there just means you don't have all the info to work with," Kagan said. "It doesn't change the fact that it's an incredibly tragic outcome of a terrible accident."

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