Illustration by Aaron Florian
Bibi was already pretty old on the day she saved me. In the wild, gorillas can live as long as 35 to 40 years, and Bibi had just turned 45. I was 8 and leaning over the railing of the Gorilla Pitt at the New Jersey Zoo, excited by the dark, hairy creatures below, adolescent males galloping on their knuckles up and down the grassy slope, charging one another and wrestling playfully as their elders sat serenely, a mother preoccupied with the black, fuzzy newborn hanging from her neck. This mother was Bibi, I would later learn, and that baby gorilla was the cutest, most amazing thing I had ever seen. I struggled to get a better view, and as I pulled against the grip of my father holding me by the sewn-in belt of my gingham dress, the stitching snapped and I tumbled over the railing, falling 15 feet down into the pitt.
I press my face into her fur, nuzzling her neck, breathing in her musky odor that smells of animal strength, and outdoors, and motherhood. I place my cheek against her chest, and feel my head rise and fall with her breath, her heart beating beneath that breast that has nursed her many children—her children taken from her and sent to zoos around the world. I hold her hand and look into her all too human eyes, and she looks tired.
You’ve possibly seen the videos on YouTube. The gorillas below, I stretch into view from the periphery before falling fully into frame, crossing that sheer, concrete wall distance that divides we great apes from those, my head knocking against the cement gutter below, my body twisting in an unlikely position against that unforgiving ground. Zoo patrons gasp, my mother screams, children cry, a pool of blood spreading from a gash in my head as the camera zooms in on me unconscious. The gorillas are immediately curious about my presence, and the adolescent males approach my limp form. My father already has a leg over the railing to jump down when Bibi scoops me up under an arm, and drags me up onto the lawn, away from the other apes, her own child clinging to her back. The crowd gasps louder at this, my mother screams again, this time my name, “Cass!!”
I wake up and begin to wail. Bibi releases me, backs off, unsure. You can hear my mother panicked, pleading, “Cass, please baby, you need to be quiet.” The camera pans and you can see the other gorillas spooked by my wailing, some lumbering sidelong towards their pens. My father has now jumped into the pit, and another man follows him down, asking him to stop, this one with the zoo. The camera finds me again and zooms in on my face: I’m absolutely bawling, face red with fear and blood. Someone yells, “look, look,” and the growing crowd frets in unison, a lone woman announcing, “oh no.” The camera refocuses, pulls back, and takes in the scene. The most aggressive of the adolescents has emerged on the lawn—his name is Kigoma. The man from the zoo picks up a stick with one hand and tries to push my father back with his other, just as Kigoma charges towards me.
Dr. Madsen enters the small, tidy room. It’s difficult to read his expression, but then, I can’t look at him for long without losing it, and my only care should be for Bibi. My tears fall, quickly absorbed by Bibi’s hair. I caress her face and begin to whisper, over and over in a singsong voice, occasionally cracked by a sob, “Just rest, sweet girl. Sweet old lady. Just rest. That’s right, just rest, it’s time to sleep, sweet Bibi, just rest.” I can’t help but notice, out of the corner of my eye, the hypodermic needle that Dr. Madsen carries with him.
Knuckles pound the ground, and the gorilla Kigoma grunts, as he fast approaches to rip my head off. My father hollers, my mother cries, and Bibi the momma ape hurries back to my side, putting herself between Kigoma and me. The adolescent changes his trajectory to avoid colliding with the barking Bibi, her baby still clinging to her back. Bibi scoops me up again, and I faint from fright, my form limp under her arm. Voices from the crowd say, “look, look,” or “it’s saving her,” and the camera pans briefly to my mother with her hands cupped over her mouth. Hooting at the others as though to say, “stay away,” Bibi drags me further up the hill, and drops me in front of the zookeeper entrance, before trotting away with her baby. Eager human arms grab for me, take me inside. Hungry for resolution, the camera finds my father being lifted out of the pitt by an emergency crew as the zookeeper stands guard with his stick. A stranger hugs my mother.
I don’t remember any of it. One moment I was leaning over the gorilla pit, the next I’m waking up in a hospital. A couple years ago we hit the ten-year anniversary of my tumble, and so several news outlets reran the story. With me entering college at the time, the story had a nice little bow tied on the end: I intended to become a gorilla researcher. I’m sure most children would have never wanted to see a gorilla again, but I became obsessed, watching the video—then taped from a local news channel—over and over, countless times until the tape became worn and unwatchable. I would insist on visiting Bibi at the zoo, taking the train by myself once I was old enough. I invented a call for her, singing, “Biiii-biiii,” and I swear to you she recognized my voice and would come to the front of the pitt, purse her lips and kiss the air in reply. I truly and deeply loved her, and from that love grew a great passion for all gorillas. So here I am.
I was packing to go to Africa for the summer to advance my studies when Dr. Madsen called me on my cell phone. I caught the first flight home from my small college town back to New Jersey, and rushed from the airport, directly to the zoo. At 57, Bibi is the oldest living gorilla in the entire world, and she was now dying from an aggressive form of lymphoma ravaging her body. They would soon put her to sleep. My studies had brought me closer into the network of primate specialists who worked at Bibi’s zoo, purchasing for me this last goodbye and thank you. Bibi not only saved my life, but gave it purpose, and because of that, I have the honor of being with her as she exits her own. I will miss her more than I can now imagine.
Bibi rests, sedated. I sing her name quietly, as on my many visits, and pray my presence brings her comfort as I stroke her face lovingly. Dr. Madsen holds the i.v. port that keeps her hydrated between thumb and forefinger, whispering, “it’s time,” and pushes the hypodermic needle through the rubber seal. Bibi’s pupils dilate as the fluid stops her heart, and I say out loud between sobs, “I love you, sweet girl, I love you—just rest, just rest,” stroking her gently even after Dr. Madsen announces she’s passed. The world is worse for her absence.
[Note: an earlier version of this story appeared in Panels For Primates available from Monkey Brain Comics, and edited by Troy Wilson, which you should really check out, because it has a lot of cool, ape-based stories from creators like Stan Lee, Dean Haspiel, Fred Van Lente, Colleen Coover, and so many more.]