One Great Ape

updated 09/02/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 09/02/1996 AT 01:00 AM EDT

ONE OR TWO RUNGS UP THE EVOLUtionary ladder, and 8-year-old Binti-Jua would have a guest spot on Letterman by now. Instead, the 160-pound western lowland gorilla spent last week hanging out in her favorite tree, grooming her 17-month-old daughter Koola and playing with her five hairy roommates in the primate pavilion at Brookfield Zoo, in Brookfield, Ill. Life as normal," says the zoo's primate manager Jay Peterson. For Binti, perhaps. But not for her keepers, who have had calls about her from as far away as Ireland and Argentina. Worldwide, Binti is a bona fide hero.

Her moment of celebrity began on Aug. 16 at the zoo's Tropic World exhibit when a frantic cry sent a chill through the crowd: "The gorilla's got my baby!" Somehow a 3-year-old boy had gotten over a 3-foot stone-and-bamboo barrier and fallen 24 feet onto the cement floor of the gorilla enclosure. As Bill Lambert, 31, one of four paramedics visiting Tropic World with their families, recorded the drama on videotape, Binti picked up the boy and cradled his limp body in her arms. "I feared the worst," says another paramedic, Jeff Bruno, who ran with two of his colleagues to the entrance of the primate exhibit. "I didn't know if she was going to treat him like a doll or a toy."

Amazingly, Binti protected the toddler as if he were her own. Keeping other gorillas at bay, she carried him across the compound and, rocking him softly, laid him before the entrance, where the paramedics and zoo staff were waiting. "I could not believe how gentle she was," says Celeste Lombardi, living collection director at Ohio's Columbus Zoo, who raised Binti for the first month of her life and saw the rescue video on TV. "I just had chills. I was very proud."

By the following Tuesday, the child—whose parents have requested anonymity—was home from the hospital, and doctors expected him to recover fully from the broken hand, abrasions and minor bruising to the brain that he had sustained. Meanwhile, animal lovers pondered why Binti would rescue a human. Surmises Jack Hanna, director emeritus of Columbus Zoo: "She saw this thing lying there, and she knew from humans taking care of her that they could take care of this problem."

Born at Columbus Zoo in March 1988, Binti-Jua (Swahili for "daughter of sunshine") was taken from her mother, Lulu, at 2 months because Lulu did not have enough milk. For 24 hours a day, keepers—first at Columbus, then later at San Francisco Zoo—worked in three shifts to hand-raise Binti, constantly holding her in their arms. "We raise them as if we're their gorilla mothers," explains Lombardi.

When she was 6, Binti became pregnant at Brookfield. Concerned that she had no strong maternal role model, trainers gave her mothering lessons, using a woolly stuffed doll to teach her to nurse and carry her baby constantly, as gorillas do in the wild. Koola was born in February 1995—and Binti proved a natural. "She was better than we expected," says her keeper Craig Demitros. "She's a great mom now."

Was it the lessons—or her familiarity with nurturing humans—that caused Binti to rescue the child? Demitros can't say. Whatever the case, thousands of her fans lined up outside Brookfield's gorilla exhibit last week, and Cathy Stein, a mother of three from Lincolnwood, Ill., sent 25 pounds of bananas. "I thought," says Stein, "that she deserved a reward."

ANNE MARIE O'NEILL
MARY GREEN in Brookfield and PAUL CUADROS in Chicago

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