Binta Jua, with daughter Koola.

Binta Jua

Most people have heard of Binta Jua, the eight-year-old gorilla who rescued a three-year-old boy after he fell into the gorilla enclosure. She not only treated him with great gentleness, she carefully carried him over and put him down near the entrance gate where the zoo attendants could reach him and bring him to the medical attention he needed. This was a remarkable story that most people saw as a fascinating demonstration of a "brute animal" showing "human-like" compassion.

A curious aspect of this event is the common explanation that Binta, abandoned by her mother, was raised by humans and thus was imprinted by humans. This seems intended as an explanation of why Binta cared for the human child at all. I wonder why an explanation is necessary. Gorillas have maternal instincts, and Binta, I seem to recall, is pregnant. Perhaps she just wanted to help. I do not understand why a prior relationship with humans was necessary.

That such imprinting may not be a prerequisite is suggested by another well documented case from the Red Sea, where dolphins protected a wounded and bleeding swimmer from a shark attack. The dolphins were entirely wild. It, too, was an instance of "brute animals" acting as humans sometimes do.

Let us disregard the fact that too many humans fail to show any such "human-like" feelings when confronted with the needs of people they do not personally know - and sometimes those they do know. Let us ignore the arrogance of classifying all other species as "brute animals." There is another aspect of Binta Jua's actions that impresses me at least as much as her empathy. This is the obvious fact that Binta knew what to do! This could not have been the result of early imprinting! Note what she did. She not only took care of the boy, treating him with great gentleness. She carried him over the gate and left him there so humans could take over his care. She clearly knew the limits of the enclosure and how to look for help.

Humans, facing the same kind of crisis, know what to do - call 911, administer CPR if needed, scream for a doctor, whatever. But then, we have been carefully and deliberately trained to respond. We have been exposed to all kinds of publicity about 911. A great deal of effort in our schools and public life has sought to impress on us what to do in common crises. Still, a good many of us fail the challenge in a crisis. We either flee, or simply dither in panic if no one is there to tell us what to do. Nobody taught Binta what to do. Nobody told Binta. Nobody had to!

Put Binta's action alongside the recently announced evidence suggesting there was life on Mars in the distant past. This juxtaposition highlights the extraordinary range of life in the universe. Mankind is part of that range, but only a part. We are not only brothers to Binta, but to the ancient Martian life, if that evidence is confirmed. This thought is both ennobling and humbling. I stand in awe!

Marshall Pease, October 1996


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Updated January 3, 1997.

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