It was the last thing I expected to see in my face, and I’ll bet Etombi, the 400-pound lowland gorilla was just as surprised.
With his cage door accidentally opened he stepped out and pushed me to the ground at the primate centre where he was caged in Franceville, Gabon at the International Medical Research Centre.
He knocked the centre worker down the corridor where she hid under a cage of noisy chimpanzees.
She screamed at me to go get help.
First, I had to figure out how to lock the prison-like gate. And then I had to decide whether I could abandon her.
We don’t know what Etombi was thinking. He probably wasn’t interested enough in the biologist to go near the chimps to get her.
He paid no attention to me.
I ran up the hill to get the American veterinarian, Dr. Robert Cooper, shouting in French that the gorilla had escaped.
Meanwhile, somehow Etombi had managed to figure out how to set off some fire extinguishers.
Cooper dashed down the hill from his lunch. He had tranquilizer darts at the site but didn’t have to use them. He tricked Etombi back into his cage.
Other than a nasty bruise on my chest I was unharmed, as was the biologist who had been guiding me around.
I was doing a story for Associated Press from my base in Abidjan, Ivory Coast, on AIDS research at Franceville.
I had asked that the back of the cage be opened because there was more light there for photos.
This week Cooper, a graduate of the University of California-Davis, and his wife, Dr. Sian Evans, who has both a Master’s Degree in biology and Ph.d in Zoology, and is from Wales, mourned the death of Harambe in the Cincinnati Zoo when a three-year-old fell into the gorilla pit and was being dragged around until a guard shot the animal.
Cooper said, “I just can’t think of them (gorillas) as being aggressive. Gentility better describes them. I would have tried to find another method and I think I would have.
A firehose might have worked.
Even though a tranquilizer would have taken five minutes to knock the Etombi out, it probably would have been distracted and dropped the child, Cooper said. Even a pellet gun might have worked.
Evans said, “As most of the world is aware of the tragedy that happened at Cincinnati Zoo over the weekend where a young boy entered a gorilla enclosure and resulted in the silverback being shot and killed. On two previous occasions boys (interestingly all the "intruders" were male) have fallen into gorilla enclosures but with much happier outcomes.
The first involved a young boy who fell into the gorilla enclosure at Jersey Zoo in 1987. [See Footage below]
The silverback, Jambo behaved protectively to the child and kept the other troop members away. The keepers were able to lure the other gorillas into their night house as Jambo continued to watch over the child.
The child who had been knocked unconscious (he fractured his skull) as a result of the fall regained consciousness and cried. The crying appeared to "rattle" Jambo and he moved away from the child. As the keepers were letting him in to the night house a young blackback ran out into the enclosure.
At this point two keepers and a medic jumped into the enclosure.
One keeper wielding a large stick kept the blackback at bay until the boy and medic were lifted to safety but all "apes" survived.
“The second incident occurred at Brookfield Zoo in 1996 when another young boy fell into the gorilla enclosure. A female Binti Jua approached the boy and carried him to a door where he was retrieved by a keeper. There were six other gorillas in the enclosure at the time.
“Interestingly Binti Jua had been raised by humans and trained in how to be a good mother. The training seemed to have paid off."
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Worked in journalism, including on the Internet, for more than 40 years. Started as a news editor at the Colorado Daily at the University of Colorado, joined a small Montana newspaper, the Helena Independent-Record, and then United Press International.