The Other Boy Who Fell Into a Gorilla Pen

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Via hello@, a reader in Queens flags a video from 1986 showing a five-year-old boy British boy at the Jersey Zoo—but this story doesn’t end with a dead body and the shaming of a distraught mother. As Tim notes, “This video is bubbling up a bit thanks to the Cincinnati incident, but mostly in the British press [the boy’s British], so Americans may not know the charming tale of Jambo the gentle silverback” (“jambo” means “hello” in Swahili):

From the YouTube caption:

Jambo shot to international news stardom overnight on August 31, 1986, when five year old Levan Merritt fell into the gorilla enclosure [at the Jersey Zoo] and lost consciousness. Jambo stood guard over the boy when he was unconscious, placing himself between the boy and other gorillas in what ethologists analyze as a protective gesture. He later stroked the unconscious boy. When the boy regained consciousness and started to cry, Jambo and the other gorillas retreated, and an ambulanceman and two keepers rescued the boy.

Tim adds, “For what it’s worth, the boy Jambo protected, Levan Merritt—now a father himself—believes the Cincinnati Zoo did the right thing given the way Harambe was behaving. (His mother disagrees.)” Here’s another reader, Brandon:

I’m not here to take a position on whether this Cincinnati mom is a bad mom or not, but as a non-parent, it’s a bit tiring to hear parents tell non-parents that they can’t judge her. Why not? Do I really need to be a parent to understand that losing a child in a potentially dangerous location is a difficult scenario that may call for added attention to the child? Or can I just use my own experiences and common sense to make a determination?

This is just a friendly reminder that there are groups of people who may not share an experience with a person but make big decisions about such persons everyday. They’re known as “juries,” which literally decide life-and-death matters everyday, and they’re the foundation of our justice system.

Another reader, Brett, broadens the topic even further:

The death of the Cincinnati gorilla seems like a tragic situation, and certainly an avoidable one. Yet, amid all the commentary, I’ve yet to see an answer to a key question: Why do we need to keep gorillas in captivity for human entertainment? What other purpose is being served? If it’s for the health and welfare of gorillas, wouldn’t that be better served by letting them live in their natural habitat? If it’s for “awareness” of some kind, does that “awareness” translate to any benefit for the gorillas (less habitat destruction, fewer threats from poachers, etc.)?

Weston today tackles that question: Do we need zoos? If you have any strong views on the matter, drop us a note. Here’s one reader, Chris Crawford, responding to Weston’s piece:

Bit by bit, we are chipping away at many of the natural habitats in which these animals live. The question then becomes: when the lowland gorillas have no place to live in the wild, where will they live? Africa is full of important animals and African nations don't have the resources to properly protect them. So they’re steadily being driven toward extinction. We have a responsibility to preserve these species, and for some of them a zoo is the only place where we can do it.

I agree that zoos are important to inspire young people with the realities of animal life. The film documentaries that we have are magnificent, but, as Weston wrote, they just don’t have the impact of seeing the real thing.

Certainly we should put an end to the barren cages. Certainly we should expand the areas available to the animals, allowing compatible animals to mix naturally. It’s expensive, but it’s still cheaper than trying to keep them alive in the wild.