- Associated Press - Sunday, June 5, 2016

LOXAHATCHEE, Fla. (AP) - To kill or not to kill a 400-pound gorilla with a grip on a 4-year-old boy is one decision the former wildlife director at Lion Country Safari is grateful he never had to make. The drive-through zoo on the far side of Loxahatchee is home to more than 900 animals - not one of them a gorilla.

But the close encounter isn’t wholly unfamiliar to Terry Wolf either - only he was the one in the primate’s grip.

It was 1970. The primate was a 200-pound chimpanzee who was known to the staff as “The Old Man.” Wolf was a 195-pound, 20-year-old beginning his second day on the job.

Old Man lived with more than a dozen other chimps on islands in the middle of the park, cut off from the rest of the park by deep, watery moats and fed by a keeper who would row out to the island with the day’s meal.

Wolf shadowed that keeper on Day One. Wolf took that guy’s place on Day Two.

“I row out. The big male looked at me and said, ‘Who are you?’ He grabs the boat, pulls it onto the island. I see his face peak into the boat, he grabs me by the collar of my shirt and the crotch of my pants, puts me over his head and throws me into the water.

“He threw me probably 20 feet. Then he threw my boat,” recalled Wolf, who retired from Lion Country in 2015 after 40 years.

At first, Wolf thought Old Man was angry, but quickly amended that assessment when he considered the mob of female chimps that had been heading his way.

“They were looking at me like they were ready to go,” said Wolf, who adds that none other than the world’s foremost authority on chimps and a recurring visitor to the park, Jane Goodall, agreed.

“I told the story to Jane. She looked at me and said, ‘He saved your life.’” Wolf said.

“The Old Man, he was always a good friend of mine after that,” Wolf said.

And that’s the thing about chimps and gorillas - they can be nurturing and friendly and, kind of human.

They do share more than 98 percent of human DNA - a closer match than any other animal. They too have unique fingerprints, hands and are even susceptible to obesity if they sit around too much. They’ve been described as “kind-hearted” and dubbed “gentle giants.”

Before a special team was dispatched Saturday to shoot and kill Harambe, the Cincinnati Zoo’s 17-year-old male, the one who had taken a special interest - good or bad - in the 4-year-old boy, there was Jambo.

Jambo was a male gorilla at a zoo in the United Kingdom, who was seen approaching a 5-year-old named Levan Merritt after the boy fell into an enclosure in 1986.

A bystander’s video shows Jambo checking on the child, stroking the boy’s back with his hand. The boy was rescued by a man who came down and carried them out by rope, according to news accounts.

Ten years later, the world was introduced to Binti Jua, a female gorilla at the Brookfield Zoo in Chicago when a 3-year-old boy fell some 20 feet into that enclosure.

Carrying her own infant on her back, Binti Jua reached the unconscious boy first, plucked him up and protected him from other approaching gorillas. Binti took him directly to a door where zookeepers could retrieve him.

But gorillas aren’t always docile.

In 2007, a 400-pounder named Bokito, age 11, broke out of his confines at the Rotterdam zoo, went on a rampage through the zoo’s cafeteria and attacked a 57-year-old Dutch woman.

And last year, Kijito, a 20-year-old, 375-pound gorilla living at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium didn’t take kindly to a girl on the other side of the glass pounding her chest, so he rushed the window, cracking it. No one was injured.

So was Harambe being rough on the toddler or protective when he dragged him through the Cincinnati attraction’s running water? Few in the zoo business care to second guess.

“It would be unfair for us to comment on the decision to shoot versus tranquilize the gorilla at the Cincinnati Zoo. We simply do not know all of the facts. As we have stated previously: human life always comes first,” wrote the Palm Beach Zoo’s spokeswoman Naki Carter on Tuesday.

Only two months ago, staff there had to make such a decision when zookeeper Stacey Konwiser was attacked by a tiger and killed. In that case, zoo officials chose not to kill the tiger but shot him with a tranquilizer dart, as they feared a bullet shot could ricochet and strike Konwiser or further anger the animal.

Wolf watched the video and wouldn’t dream of second-guessing.

“Gorillas are really pretty docile in nature, but apparently he was getting pretty rough,” Wolf said. “It’s a really horrible decision to have to make as a keeper. I’m sure the staff is devastated and probably even arguing among themselves too.”

Of course, one of the hardest things Wolf recalls doing was coming back to work on Day Three. That was scary, he said.

The Old Man is gone and Wolf has retired, moved and begun again. Meanwhile, zoos have changed, too.

For one, Lion Country now has a system of bridges that keepers use to rotate the 18 chimps among four islands, keeping one island empty at any given time so a keeper can drop off food and clean up before moving on to the next.

And an alphabet soup of agencies will be dissecting how exactly a 4-year-old wandered or fell into Cincinnati’s gorilla pen.

Adds Wolf, “The discussion I hear around here is ‘How can a 4-year-old be left alone. There’s got to be two or three barriers the kid would have to go through.”

“That’s a first class zoo, the Cincinnati Zoo, those people work hard to do things right.”


Information from: The Palm Beach (Fla.) Post, https://www.pbpost.com

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