Year in review

1996 was a big year for news junkies. The once-again fragile Middle East peace process. The ever-swelling Central African refugee crisis. Even the not-so-exciting U.S. presidential election. And, of course, Binti Jua the gorilla.

Binti Jua? Yes, indeed. Furrow your brow, scratch your head, and you'll recall the maternal primate who, when a little child fell into her zoo pen, cradled him in her arms. A videocamera captured the scene and Binti received her Warholian 15 minutes of fame. And then some.

It was a balmy August day in the Chicago suburb of Brookfield, and Binti was wandering around her terrain at the local zoo, carrying her own infant on her back. Just another ho-hum day, or so she thought. Then, it happened -- the incident that would transform her from an obscure western lowland gorilla to a media celebrity.

A 3-year-old boy, with the perpetual curiosity of the young, leaned too far over a concrete cliff and fell 18 feet, punctuating his descent with blood-curdling screams.

Binti ambled over, stood over the unconscious child, reached out her muscular, hairy arm, and scooped him up. She took him near a door where zookeepers and paramedics could assist him. The youngster was rushed to the hospital and eventually recovered.

The story made its way around our global village with media-lightning speed. Television crews and reporters from around the world converged on Brookfield. There were offers of rewards for Binti in the form of money and bananas. Politicians of all stripes came a-calling. Even first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton invoked the gorilla's name during her speech before the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. "Binti is a typical Chicagoan," Mrs. Clinton said. "Tough on the outside, but with a heart of gold underneath."

Binti in action -- 415K QuickTime movie

The darling of the paparazzi, and a source of inspiration for politicians, Binti also found herself studied by anthropologists and scientists of the armchair variety.

Some said Binti was merely displaying the innate maternal quality all female primates possess. Others said that wasn't the complete truth because Binti was raised by humans and had to be taught nurturing skills when she gave birth.

Binti isnt the only gorilla to have saved a little boy. Nearly a century ago, the fictional Kala became foster mother for an orphan who in later years assumed the title Lord Greystoke, a.k.a. Tarzan of the Apes. A group of Tarzan fans awarded Binti the first Kala award.

The plaque lauds Binti "for her rescue, protection and return of a male human child... and for displaying extraordinary alertness, compassion and bravery in the face of her nervous and agitated fellow gorillas."

The latter part of that citation refers to the fact that zookeepers doused Binti's companions with water while she cradled the boy, in an effort to keep them away.

But perhaps those zookeepers and Tarzan fans got it all wrong. Binti's fellow gorillas may not have been "nervous and agitated" at all. They may instead have merely been applauding and cheering (with apologies to Dian Fossey) "a heroine in their midst."

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