Reporter's Notebook

Every Parent's Worst Panic
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Readers tell their frantic stories of losing a young child in public. If you have your own experience to share, drop us a note at hello@theatlantic.com.

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The Other Boy Who Fell Into a Gorilla Pen

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.

That’s probably what Dana screamed in her head:

Thank you for all these stories of readers losing their little kids in public. Here’s mine: I was on the 22nd floor of a downtown office building with my baby in a stroller, holding the hand of my three-year-old son as we waited for the elevator. When the doors opened, the older boy slipped free and darted in. As I struggled to get the wheels of the stroller over the threshold of the elevator, the doors closed.

I am not sure why or how the elevator automatically went to the ground floor. Perhaps that was the default for the car, in case no one pressed a button. Or perhaps the kid knew to push G! We never figured that out.

The minutes I spent waiting for a second elevator and traveling down were some of the longest of my life. This was before cell phones. My three-year-old was waiting for us, in the lobby, crying, holding the hand of a uniformed janitor.

So yeah. A split second.

Dana’s story reminds me of this scene from Louie, when CK loses his daughter on a subway platform after she suddenly lunges through the closing doors:

This next reader, Anne, also has a story of a little kid getting through a door and exposing himself to danger:

I know this story isn’t about losing a child in public, but it really does take seconds for them to get into a situation. Toddlers can be amazingly curious, agile, and very quick.

I worked in child care for many years and lived for a while with friends, Russ and Cass, who had three kids. We traded partial rent for baby-sitting duties. Their two-year-old son, Rickie, was the challenge, as he was big for his age and quite the handful.

One day, while the kids were watching cartoons, Rickie suddenly decided to climb a bookcase.

A reader with hearing difficulties, Cliff, is especially vulnerable to his children slipping away in public, so he emphasizes how crucial it can be for strangers to step in when a kid seems lost or endangered. Cliff titles his note, “Sometimes it takes a village.”

My question is why didn’t any of the other guests at the Cincinnati Zoo that day pull the kid off the enclosure walls before he fell in to the gorilla pen? Surely someone saw him before the fall? As a partially deaf parent of toddlers, I struggle daily to make sure my kids don’t inadvertently kill themselves whilst under my care, so I’m almost always grateful when a kind stranger or neighbor pitches in to help.

Case in point: My wife and I were at a park with our two daughters (ages three and one) and several adult friends and their children. We employee the “divide and conquer” strategy of child supervision, meaning we each pick a kid who we are responsible for watching at all times. This system normally works very well; late in the day, however, things went awry.

This reader series clearly struck a chord, as many parents keep writing in to share their stories. Here’s Leila:

My brother was two years old when my mother and I turned around to find that he had evaporated into thin air. My brother from an early age was nuts about trains, so she headed to the train station about four city blocks away. She found my brother there dancing up and down on the concrete platform waiting for the next express train to go through. It was just on the verge of rush hour.

I think you are fortunate if you’ve raised a child and you do not have an almost-horror story to tell about that moment when you looked the other way or you thought everything was under to control … only to discover that it wasn't.

Another time it wasn’t:

My husband is currently using an iPhone with a cracked screen because of an incident at Christmas, when we were at La Guardia getting ready to fly home for the holiday.