Roy and the Drowning Gorilla
This is another Roy story as told by Roy’s father in his journal. This fictional story is based upon a true event.
Roy leaned against the chipped metal rail bordering the habitat area and watched four shaggy wolverines pace restlessly along the edge of the moat. The wolverines knew it was the time day when their special friend dropped by with treats. They didn’t see well enough to identify Roy but their keen noses had picked up his scent, or perhaps they smelled the bag of beef bones he was carrying. The Bronx Zoo’s fierce little carnivores fascinated Roy, especially since they had been his responsibility earlier that summer.
Roy threw the bones to the wolverines and watched each one eagerly grab a bone and scurry off to eat in private. Roy was about to return to his zookeeper duties that hot August afternoon when he became aware of excited voices behind him. He turned to see two boys running toward him waving their arms.
At first, the jabbering boys made no sense so it was hard to tell why they were so excited. They grabbed Roy’s hands and tried to pull him back in the direction they had come. Roy could hardly understand them but it seemed to be something about a gorilla… and water.
Suddenly, it dawned on Roy what they might be trying to tell him. He left them far behind as he raced off in the direction of the Great Ape House. The building was a large, circular structure that housed chimps, orangutans, gibbons and gorillas. Each indoor cage opened out into outdoor habitat area with a water-filled moat and a fence.
As Roy approached the building, he saw a crowd of excited visitors milling around the front of the outdoor gorilla habitat. They were yelling and waving their hands. Roy’s heart sunk as he pushed his way through the crowd. At first, he only saw Oka, the zoo’s adult female gorilla, excitedly shuffling back and forth along the edge of the moat and grunting urgently. Roy immediately discovered the reason for her anxiety. He saw a large dark shape just beneath the surface of the water filled moat. Roy made out the massive back of a dark head and shoulders, barely visible in the murky water. Huge arms were slowly moving in a desperate struggle to survive. It was Sultan, the big silverback male gorilla, and Oka’s mate. Apparently, he had fallen into the moat, perhaps while trying to retrieve something a zoo visitor had thrown to him.
It was zoo policy that whenever the apes were on public view in the outside enclosures, a keeper was always on duty. The idea was not to protect the visitors from the apes, but to protect the apes from the visitors. Every day people threw food, rubber balls, clothing and assorted garbage across the moat to the apes in hopes of eliciting a reaction. Roy was told that in the past, keepers had found the chimps playing with a knife and an orangutan with a package of needles in his mouth. He wondered about people who did such stupid things. What could they possibly be thinking? How could they be so reckless? I had told Roy that some people do not care about anything beyond their own emotions and immediate needs. It was sad but Roy knew it to be true because in his short life of eighteen years, he had already met many such inconsiderate and selfish people.
Roy quickly looked around but there was no other keeper in sight. He did not have time to worry about that now; he had to react immediately to the emergency before him. Roy left the excited crowd, raced around to the front entrance of the building and down a flight of stairs into the food preparation room where he hoped to find Mickey, the senior keeper of the Ape House. Mickey was preparing food trays for the baby chimps while cheerfully singing along with a blaring radio as Roy rushed in an blurted out, “Mickey, Sultan fell into the moat and is drowning! “
Mickey dropped a tray of fruit scattering apples, bananas, and oranges over the floor, and hurried over to a heavy glass window that looked out into the outdoor area. From it he saw the frantic Oka waving her arm and the excited visitors on the other side of the moat. The usually lighthearted Mickey scowled as he shook his head and muttered something under his breath.
He looked back at Roy and said, “We gotta go in there and try to rescue Sultan. I’ll try to get Oka inside; you call the Veterinarian and Zoo Director, and then come back in to help me. Hang the open lock on the cage door so Oka can’t escape if she gets away from me. That way the vet can get in to help us when he arrives.”
Mickey unlocked the cage and hurried in. When Roy pulled open the door to the outside area, Mickey disappeared through it. Roy would have loved to have see Oka’s reaction to Mickey’s sudden appearance but he did not have time to linger. He had to call for help.
As soon as Roy knew help was on its way, he followed Mickey into the gorilla cage, hung the open padlock back on the closed door, and hurried through the outside door into the habitat area. He thrilled at the idea that he was actually going into a gorilla’s cage… with the gorillas still in it. His heart pounded and he trembled with excitement at the very thought.
As Roy stepped into the outside area, he saw Mickey trying to coax Oka away from the moat. Mickey showed no fear for himself; he and Oka had a special relationship. Roy had seen photos on the bulletin board of Mickey and Oka sitting together eating watermelon. Oka had her huge arm draped around the shoulders of the little man sitting beside her as they shared a large slice of melon. Oka was always gentle with her devoted keeper. Today, however, the circumstances were very different and there was no telling what might happen in the excitement. Oka was an averaged sized female gorilla but compared to the four hundred and fifty pound silverback but she was a lightweight. Never the less, she could be dangerous if stressed.
Roy hurried over to the edge of the moat and searched the murky water until he found the dark body beneath its surface. It was motionless now, but the visitors were still yelling and pointing to it. In desperation, Roy looked over to Mickey, who was trying to pull Oka toward a door that led into a special inside holding area. She was resisting and had both her huge arms wrapped around Mickey while hooting her concern in his face. Mickey pointed to the moat, “See if you can drag Sultan to the shore and get his head out of the water.” He yelled. “Maybe we can still save him.”
Roy tried but could not reach the massive body from the shore so he slipped into the warm, dirty water. As the water reached his chin he felt his feet touch bottom. Roy estimated that it was plenty, deep enough… to drown a gorilla. In anguish, he wondered why the water was so deep. After this emergency was over, he was determined to find out.
Roy was relieved that the big ape was no longer struggling so he could approach it. His lifeguard training would have done him little good had the ape resisted. Roy reached out and grabbed one of Sultan’s giant arms, and pulled. It took all of Roy’s strength to pull the heavy body six feet to the edge of the moat. Roy pulled himself out of the water and sat down on the edge of the moat with his legs still dangling in the water while clinging to the hairy arm. He grabbed the long hair on both sides of Sultan’s neck and pulled his massive face and head up out of the water and between his legs.
Roy looked down at Sultan’s huge, black face. His eyes were closed but his mouth was half open exposing four long, formidable canine teeth. There was no sign of life, no breathing that Roy could detect. He searched for a pulse on Sultan’s temple but found none. Roy could do no more with the heavy body. He looked over at Mickey in desperation.
Mickey had finally managed to calm Oka down and was about to pull her into the holding area. He hollered over to Roy, “Just hold his head up out of the water until help comes.”
No sooner than he said that, Oka broke free of his grasp and shuffled directly over toward Roy. “Watch out Roy!” he called. “Oka is coming your way.”
Roy watched helplessly as she charged by and poked him in the back with the knuckles of her huge hand. It was a light tap by gorilla standards but hard enough, by human standards, to knock Roy half way back into the water. He managed to hang on to Sultan’s head and retain his position on the edge of the moat. Oka backed off as Mickey caught up to her and pulled her back.
“She’s just trying to help, she wont hurt you.” He said with a forced grin on his face. “If she was angry you would not still be sitting there.”
Roy relaxed a bit and held on to Sultan’s head while Mickey sat down with Oka beside him. She wasn’t about to leave the scene at this moment so they could do nothing more but wait. It must have been an unbelievable experience for the zoo visitors watching two men and a gorilla sitting at the edge of the moat; one man struggling to keep a huge shaggy head from slipping beneath the water’s surface and the other in the arms of a distressed female gorilla. Fortunately no one had a camera, or photos of this unfortunate event would have surely made the newspaper’s front page the next morning. It would not be the kind of publicity the zoo wanted.
Oka made soft cries as she clutched Mickey. She tried to reach out to Sultan’s head but Mickey managed to deflect her attempts. While they waited for help Roy did what he had often done so many times in the past when interacting with animals. It had worked before so it would do no harm to try now. He turned and talked softly to the female gorilla. “ It’s alright Oka. We are taking good care of your friend. Calm down old girl.” Roy knew that the gorilla did not understand his words but he hoped she understood their tone and that he was trying his best to help. With Mickey’s reassuring presence and Roy’s soothing words, Oka seemed to calm down a little while they waited for help to arrive.
Eventually, the Veterinarian and several other keepers arrived. Dr. Osborn stuck his head through the door and asked Mickey, “Is Sultan breathing.”
“Doesn’t look like it, but I can’t be sure” Mickey replied.
Oka, alarmed at the appearance of the vet and six other keepers, retreated to the far side of the enclosure with Mickey at her side.
Dr. Osborn rushed over to Roy and Sultan. Two keepers slipped into the water to support the gorilla and the others grabbed his arms. It took all of them to push and pull the massive body out of the moat onto dry land. They carried his limp and soaking body over to a near by log and placed him on it face down in an attempt to drain water from his lungs. It was hard to tell if they were doing any good.
Dr. Osborn told the keepers to roll the gorilla over on its side so he could try to get some air into its lungs. He pulled out a resuscitation bag and large mask, and placed the mask over Sultan’s mouth and nose. One of the other keepers squeezed the bag to force air down the ape’s windpipe as Roy cradled the huge head in his lap while another keeper held the mask in place.
While Dr. Osborn searched again for a pulse, Roy continued to hold Sultan’s head and stroke the ape’s face and head. He pleaded to Sultan in his special soft and reassuring voice, “Come on big boy. It’s not your time to go. Wake up, wake up, Oka is worried about you, and so are we. Come on, wake up big boy, you can do it. Fight hard. Don’t leave us. We all love you Sultan.”
Dr. Osborn failed to find a heartbeat with his stethoscope so Roy feared that he was about to give up. The vet lifted one of Sultan’s eyelids and searched for a change in pupil size.
He looked discouraged. “I’m afraid we lost him,” the veterinarian announced as he shook his head. Roy searched the vet’s downcast face for some kind of hope but saw none. “There is nothing more we can do,” he sadly concluded.
Roy blurted out without thinking, “We can’t quit now Dr. Osborn! Please, let’s give it another few minutes.” Roy shook Sultan’s head. “Come on Sultan, wake up, please wake up!” Roy squeezed Sultan’s cheeks and rubbed his massive brow afraid that Dr. Osborn would abandon the rescue effort and order him to stop. Dr Osborn placed one hand on Roy’s shoulder and started to say something when Roy felt a faint movement in Sultan’s neck.
The movement grew into a spasm that heaved through Sultan’s chest and abdomen as the veterinarian spoke. The big ape began to cough violently and then to vomit up his morning meal. Sultan’s stomach contents gushed out of his gaping mouth and over Roy’s shirt and pants. Roy didn’t mind the mess of regurgitated food splattered over him; about a gallon of partly digested fruit and vegetables, fortified hamburger meat, strong smelling digestive secretions and water. All Roy cared about that Sultan was alive. No one saw the tears swell in his eyes and he wiped them away before they could roll down his cheeks. He heard the happy screams and applause from the watching visitors at the apparent good news. It was like someone had just caught a winning touchdown pass in the last second of a championship game.
Mickey, having finally succeeded in escorting Oka back into the special holding area, returned just in time to see Sultan throw up over Roy. He and all the keepers laughed in relief at the mess in Roy’s lap, but he immediately cautioned everyone, “We don’t have much time. Sultan may be up and around any minute… and he won’t be pleased to find us here holding his hand. Let’s carry him back inside where we can better care for him, and get out of his way.”
It took all the keepers to carry the limp soaked and dripping body back inside the building. They laid him down, and evacuated the cage just as the big gorilla open his eyes and rolled over with loud grunt. He tried to sit up several times before he succeeded. Mickey was so right. Sultan was puzzled as to what happened and not happy about the way he felt. He threw a mini temper-tantrum. Shuffling back and forth across the small cage on all fours, he pounded its walls with open palms and sent the booming sounds and vibrations throughout the whole building. It sounded like bombs were exploding. After regaining his self-assurance and respect, Sultan finally calmed down and soon accepted and orange from Mickey. Roy watched and wondered what thoughts were going through Sultan’s mind. Was he angry with his keepers or was he frightened about the near death experience he just had in the moat water? Roy thought it was a probably a little bit of both.
“He’s going to do fine.” Mickey assured everyone. Dr. Osborn agreed and thanked the keepers for their efforts to save Sultan. Soon the Zoo Director arrived with several curators in tow. Mickey and Dr. Osborn told the whole rescue story to them in great detail. They could not help but noticed Roy’s foul smelling clothes and the Zoo Director chided him good naturedly, “If you want to keep your job here at the zoo you are going to have look and smell better than you do now.” Everyone had a loud but nervous laugh.
As the keepers and Zoo Director were laughing and kidding Roy about his clothes, the zookeeper, whose job it was to watch the outside area, returned after a long unauthorized break. He was surprised to see the crowd in the food preparation area and had no idea what had happened. The Zoo Director took him by the arm and escorted him out. It was the last Roy and the others ever saw of him. Rumor was that he was fed to the lions.
Roy was considered a hero at the Zoo and had to relate the rescue story many times before the day ended. He was eager to get home and tell his adventure to his family. Roy knew that I would be fascinated with the adventure, but his mom, Maggie, would fret about the danger he had been in.
Maggie’s reaction to Roy’s adventure was predictable. When she had calmed down, I asked, “Do you think that your soothing words had anything to do with saving Sultan?
Roy shrugged his shoulders and replied, “ I don’t know for sure Dad, but it could be.”
I asked, “What did Mickey and Dr. Osborn think about what happened?”
Again, Roy was not sure. “They said I did the right thing, and they kidded me about talking to Sultan and Oka. I don’t know if they thought it did any good”
I believed that Roy’s words and demeanor did help calm down Oka and revive Sultan from his near death experience. I recorded the day’s events in my journal. It would be a book that would sensitize children and adults to the worldwide plight of wild animals and remind them of their responsibilities as caretakers of the fragile earth. We need to protect rare and endangered animals like gorillas.
Roy had a hard time falling asleep that night. He wondered about the emotions that must have flooded through Oka’s mind as she saw her mate disappear into the moat. He wondered what Sultan felt about his narrow escape from drowning. Would he bear a grudge and be more difficult to handle? Roy tried to get inside the gorillas’ heads and discover what they might think about their lives in captivity. He wondered if they would have been happier in their homeland on the forested slopes of Zaire. Would they have been able to survive the dangers in the wild from poachers? Roy did not have the answers to those questions, but he was sure that gorillas think much like he did, and experience all the emotions humans have.