The Lowland Silver Back gorilla named Jambo (Swahili for Hello) was famous for the gentleness he displayed towards a little five year old boy (Levan Merritt) who fell into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo (Gerald Durrell’s Wildlife Conservation Trust) one afternoon in 1986. The dramatic event hit the headlines around the world. I was lucky enough to have been in the right place at the right time to record this. The result from this television exposure was that it helped dispel the myth that gorillas are thought to be always dangerous and ferocious.
It was a Sunday afternoon in August 1986 when I decided to visit Jersey Zoo with my mother, father and baby brother. It was a warm sunny day which made it a good day to practice with my video camera. The idea was to get some nice shots of the animals.
Levan was on holiday in Jersey from the UK with his family. His parents Pauline and Steve, his brother Lloyd and sister Stephanie. They had decided to visit the zoo because they were a bit bored of the beach.
The Gorilla complex is designed to give the most natural living environment for the gorillas, and the best view possible for the public without the use of bars.
It consist of covered living quarters where the gorillas can sleep and are protected from the weather. This leads to an outside landscaped area made up of grass and trees. There are several mounds of earth in the centre of the enclosure which slope down to a concrete drainage area. This in turn is surrounded by a 12 ft high concrete wall. The public look over this wall down and into the Gorilla enclosure. Looking across the complex gives the impression that the gorillas living space is part of the surrounding environment.
When the Merritt family arrived at the gorilla enclosure they realised that the gorillas had gathered beneath the wall below them, just out of sight where Steve and the children were standing. The wall stands about chest level to an adult.
Steve lifted Levan onto the wall so he could get a better look and then turned around to pick up Lloyd. For some reason Steve was distracted. At that moment Pauline saw Levan bolt upright on top of the wall as he toppled forward. Steve looking at Pauline saw from the expression on her face and realised what had happened.
I had only been at the zoo for about 20 minutes when I heard shouting and screaming coming from area of the gorilla enclosure. We quickly moved there to see what was going on.
Steve decided to climb down the wall but was stopped by the people around him. Other people tried to calm down Pauline who was screaming and pulled her away from the wall. They told her the boy had fallen onto the grass and gorillas were locked away. This was not the case.
Levan had fallen onto the concrete drainage path 12 ft below. He was perfectly still with blood coming from back of head. He had fractured skull on wall when fallen. Steve looked at him and thought he was dead.
People watched in horror as Nandi a female gorilla and offspring moved towards Levan. Jambo closely followed. As Nandi approached Levan Jambo took charge and placed himself between them as if to say “Don’t touch!” This is thought to have been either Jambo protecting his family and perhaps at the same time satisfying his curiosity before any other members of the troop decided to find out what this human boy was doing in their home. Jambo then sat looking over the boy. Jambo then sat next to Levan and looked up curiously at the crowd as if to say “What is he doing here?”
By now a large crowd had gathered and they thought that Jambo would harm the child. Because Levan was quiet Jambo did not regard the child as a threat. The greatest threat was actually the crowd. There was a lot of screaming and some of the them said they should throw rocks to scare the gorillas away. My father then took control, telling them any action like this would be bad and told them all to keep quiet.
Levan fell 12 ft onto concrete...........
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