Gorillas in our Midst

September 17, 1996 at 12:00 AM EDT


ROGER ROSENBLATT: It really wasn’t about a gorilla. It was about kindness appearing where it was least expected. The incident, you’ll recall, occurred at the Chicago Brookfield Zoo a few weeks ago. A three-year-old boy fell 18 feet into the gorilla cage, and the zookeepers, fearing the worst, turned hoses on the residents to keep them from harming the fallen child.

But one mother gorilla, in an act of what appeared to be mothering, picked up the limp body of the boy and carried him to a safe place near the entrance to the cage so that the humans who ran the place could take over from there–one primate helping another.

Offers of bananas poured in. Some people wanted to adopt the mother gorilla who, in fact, had adopted us. From one perspective, the story may be seen as the cultural reclamation of gorillas. Heretofore, gorillas or apes were often associated with trouble making, even murder. Tarzan was of them, but in the movies in the 1930’s and 1940’s, killers often dressed up as gorillas to terrorize the neighborhood. The Murders in the Rue Morgue were committed by a man but his weapon was an anti-social climber. (scream from woman in movie) King Kong was probably the first to display some sign of beauty in the beast.

His movie next of kin, Mighty Joe Young, turned out to be such a good guy that the scriptwriters allowed him to live. He too rescued a child in danger. By the time the culture turned pro-sensitivity, one was treated to the mad but lovable Morgan, who dressed up as a gorilla, and to an entire “Planet of the Apes.”

CHARLTON HESTON: (“Planet of the Apes”) Get your filthy paws off me, you damned, dirty ape!

ROGER ROSENBLATT: The highly successful book, “Gorillas in the Mist,” and the movie made from it showed how admirable the creatures are, an image verified by the mother gorilla in Chicago. But our recent story was not really about gorillas. It was about the distance between dire assumption and pleasant surprise. The dire assumption was that the gorillas would tear the boy apart or stomp on him, in short, that those who could do harm would. The pleasant surprise is that they did good.

It’s a rare thing to see. Of course, this sort of surprise works the other way around. Kindness, when it comes as a surprise is a delight; cruelty as a surprise is the pits. Certain people are prone to turn on those who have been good to them, usually out of envy and, therefore, dishonestly, and comes as a surprise, but oddly, never as much as a surprise as kindness out of the blue. Maybe now the gorilla will join the other animals to whom we have ascribed qualities superior to our own. Aesop had his various clever creatures. Jonathan Swift had his noble horses.

A great many artists have exalted elephants. And we have Br’er Rabbit, and the wonderful creations of Chuck Jones. Within every one of those animals was a better person trying to get out, trying to realize some heroic capability that was unattainable in human form. So virtue was projected upon another animal, just as kindness was projected upon the mother gorilla in Chicago, whom, in our more ambitious moments, we would dearly love to ape.

I’m Roger Rosenblatt.