Picture the scene: you’re enjoying a day at the zoo, looking at the gorillas, when you see a shape tumble into the enclosure. Wait… was that what you thought it was? You look closer, and you hear the screams, and slowly your curiosity turns to horror when you see a small boy lying on the concrete… and a hulking shape approaching him.
The recent controversial shooting of Harambe, a silverback gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo, and the events leading up to it, may be the current hot topic in the media – but it is by no means the first time that a child has fallen in with gorillas. Indeed, 30 years ago, one such incident would change how people saw great apes forever.
And if anyone is qualified to judge the outcome of the Harambe incident, that person is Levan Merritt. He was just five years old when he had his own primate encounter with a gorilla. In fact, Merritt and his family were on vacation on the island of Jersey in the English Channel when, on August 30, 1986, a visit to the local zoo would make history.
Merritt’s parents are Pauline and Stephen Merritt, and on this particular day Stephen lifted up Merritt’s older brother Clint, who was eight at the time, to give him a better view of the gorillas. In “a case of boys being boys,” Merritt has said that he wanted to improve his own view, so he climbed up the enclosure wall.
When Merritt’s family saw what he was doing, it was too late; they watched in horror as their son lost his footing and tumbled into the gorilla pit. “When Levan slipped into the pen, I started shouting and screaming and I was led away to the zoo cafe, while Stephen stayed put,” Pauline told MailOnline.
“It was only the next day we saw what had happened,” Pauline continued. “One of the nurses had seen it on breakfast TV and asked us ‘have you seen this?’ knowing that we were the family who had been involved. That was the first time I saw it and to be honest I couldn’t actually believe what I was seeing.”
What she saw was this: as the Merritt boy lay prone on the enclosure floor he caught the attention of the pen’s residents. The gorillas came over to investigate, led by a seven-foot-tall, 252-pound male silverback called Jambo.
The crowd must have held their breath as the huge primates stomped over to Merritt, but what happened next no one could have predicted. Indeed, in a time when the nature of gorillas was vastly misunderstood, Jambo did something that would shock everyone.
The huge primate, towering over Merritt, reached out his huge paw… and stroked the prone boy’s back. The silverback stood protectively over his patient, putting himself between the unconscious child and the other advancing gorillas, until Merritt regained consciousness.
The public’s opinion on the temperament of gorillas was changed forever thanks to Jambo. This would be due in large part to the fact that When Merritt started to cry, the huge male primate retreated and ushered the other confused gorillas back into their pen.
Before the gorillas’ pen could close, however, curiosity got the better of a young primate called Hobbit, who ran back into the enclosure toward Merritt. Luckily, the zookeepers and emergency responder Brian Fox had leapt into the arena by then, and he got the young boy out of harm’s way.
Merritt had fallen 20 feet onto concrete, breaking his arm and fracturing his skull in the process. “The first I saw of the video was in hospital and I remember being incredibly surprised and quite shocked. I obviously couldn’t believe what had happened,” he told reporters later.
Merritt’s life was changed by the events of that day, both for better and for worse. He remained in contact with the zoo, visiting it on many occasions. He even cut the celebratory ribbon marking the instalment of a bronze statue to honor Jambo, who passed away in 1992.
Unfortunately, Merritt’s unusual experience did not earn him respect as a young student. Other kids teased him relentlessly, calling him gorilla boy and Tarzan. “It was a difficult time, but I just tried to shrug it off,” he told MailOnline. Now 30 years later, Merritt is happily married with children of his own.
But on May 28, 2016 history repeated itself with drastically different results. This was when four-year-old Isiah Dickerson crept away from his mother Michelle Gregg and fell into the gorilla enclosure at the Cincinnati Zoo. The events that transpired here were caught on camera too, and this time everyone had an opinion on how the zoo handled the situation.
Dickerson had snuck under a barrier, but on the other side was a 10-foot slope. He fell and was trapped in the enclosure with Harambe, a 17-year-old, 400-pound male silverback gorilla. Although Harambe initially appeared protective, the gorilla’s behavior seemingly became erratic.
Fearing tranquilizers would make things worse before making them better, zoo officials made the choice to fatally shoot the critically-endangered gorilla. Dickerson was rescued after ten minutes in the pit and walked away without serious injury.
Merritt reluctantly backs the zoo’s decision to shoot Harambe. “I felt for the boy but also felt for the gorilla,” he told British newspaper The Sun. “Did they have to kill it?… The four-year-old is tiny and could easily have been injured. So they made the correct decision to save the boy’s life.”
Merritt’s mother Pauline, on the other hand, disagrees. “I don’t think he should have been killed. The keeper should have got in to try to get the gorilla away and then get the boy out. No way he should have been killed,” she said on U.K. ITV talk show This Morning.
Whether you agree with Merritt or his mother, recent events are certainly tragic. “In my case, Jambo made sure nothing bad could happen,” Merritt said. “I am forever thankful to Jambo, as obviously it could have gone one or two ways. It was amazing how he protected me in that way.”