10/13/1986 at 01:00 AM EDT
When 5-year-old Levan Merritt accidentally plunged into the gorilla enclosure at Britain's Jersey Wildlife Zoo in the Channel Islands, the last thing horrified onlookers expected him to do was make a friend. Moments earlier, the boy's father had placed son Clint, 6, on top of the surrounding wall for a better look at the gorillas. Levan scrambled onto the wall too, and before his parents could grab him, he lost his balance and fell 20 feet to the concrete below. Knocked unconscious, Levan lay still with tiny rivulets of blood coming from his nose and mouth.
That's when a 400-pound gorilla called Jambo, whose name means "greetings" in Swahili, came into the picture. To keep the other six gorillas from getting too close, Jambo "put his big arm out and pushed them away," Levan's mother Pauline reports. Jambo then sat next to the boy, gently poking him with a finger at one point. A few minutes later, Levan opened his eyes, saw Jambo and did what any 5-year-old would do under the circumstances: He screamed. The 25-year-old Western Lowlands gorilla was unfazed. By this time a zoo official had climbed over the wall and managed to coax Jambo and the others to move away. After his rescue, Levan was treated for a broken arm and a mild concussion.
"It was typical of him specifically rather than gorillas in general," says head keeper Richard Johnstone-Scott of Jambo's kindly act. "He was obviously concerned. He was also saying 'He's mine.' He was protecting the child for himself." Though the other gorillas grumbled a bit, Johnstone-Scott explains, Jambo is their leader and "he doesn't have to do an awful lot for his group to take notice." Adds Pauline, "Jambo was just like a dad. He was just lovely."
Recently the Merritts left their home in Sussex to pay a visit to Jambo, courtesy of a London newspaper and the zoo. His arm in a sling and protected this time by three inches of glass, Levan chatted happily with Jambo. "I'm not scared," says Levan, who doesn't recall the incident. "Jambo loves me. He looked after me, didn't he? Jambo is my friend."