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California and the West | MIKE DOWNEY

A Story That Can't Fail to Get Notice: 'Gorilla Escapes'

October 13, 2000|MIKE DOWNEY

I was a guest once on the late David Susskind's television talk show in New York, close to 20 years ago. Alongside me sat a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer from New York and a third guy, the author of some very funny novels.

"So, what makes a good story?" Susskind asked us at one point.

A pretty broad question, to be sure, but we took a crack at it.

Human interest, the Pulitzer winner said. Comedy, tragedy, anything that a typical reader could relate to.

Underdogs, I said. Everybody loves an underdog. There isn't a typical reader in the world who can't relate to an underdog.

It got quiet for a few seconds when it came the novelist's turn to answer. We waited. He seemed to be lost in deep thought, mulling it over.

Finally, a mischievous look came across his face.

"Gorilla escapes from zoo," he said.

*

Four words, and he spoke them flatly in that manner, like a headline you'd read in a newspaper:

GORILLA ESCAPES FROM ZOO

And then he said something like: "Think about it. Here's a story that's got everything. Excitement, terror, panic. . .

"You want comedy? What's funnier than a bunch of city folk hiding from a gorilla? You want tragedy? What could be worse than somebody being found by a gorilla?

"Because, let's face it, anybody who bumps into a runaway gorilla is going to be an underdog."

We laughed for five minutes.

There was something so absurd about it, all pretense of a serious discussion disappeared. What a non sequitur that was, Susskind said.

"I've never been more serious in my life," the novelist replied, not quite keeping a straight face.

From time to time, I have recited this dialogue whenever asked a question about my idea of an interesting news event.

Because, let's face it, everybody loves a good gorilla story.

The last time it came to mind was 1996, after something happened to a 3-year-old boy. While visiting a zoo outside Chicago, he fell 18 feet to a concrete floor . . . in the gorilla cage.

Binti Jua found him. Binti was a female ape, age 8, whose name in Swahili translated as "Daughter of Sunshine."

Scooping up the boy, Binti cradled him in her hairy arms. Zookeepers sprayed water at six other gorillas to push them back. Binti then carried the boy to a doorway, set him down gently and left him to be rescued.

I loved that story, particularly when the zoo's primate curator, Melissa Pruett-Jones, said Binti had undergone "positive reinforcement training" to enhance her maternal skills, often playing Mommy to a stuffed toy gorilla.

It was the cutest gorilla tale in 10 years, since one named Jambo in the United Kingdom had protected a 5-year-old boy who fell into his cage. (Note to parents: Please be more careful. Note to zoos: Please build taller cages.)

You've got to admit, a gorilla-saves-kid story is good stuff.

But in all these years, I've never come across a single juicy "Gorilla Escapes" saga, dripping with excitement, terror and panic.

Until Wednesday.

A 24-year-old, 275-pound creature escaped from her compound in the Los Angeles Zoo, around 3 in the afternoon.

At last, the perfect story. It had everything--even an announcement for all of the zoo's visitors to head immediately for the exits. (It's not quite "Run for your lives!" but it'll do.)

Now, no way do we really want a western lowland gorilla running around Southern California (a western lowland itself, if ever there was one). But it sure did have some intriguing possibilities:

1. The gorilla escapes, then she picks up a blond actor and climbs to the top of the Hollywood Bowl.

2. The gorilla escapes, then becomes involved in a low-speed chase on the freeway.

3. The gorilla escapes, then urges the tigers and elephants to join her in a picket line outside the zoo for higher wages.

*

Evelyn was this gorilla's name. (If only it were something scarier, like Kong or Gor-Zilla. You can only be so fearful of an Evelyn.)

And she never did get all the way out. Just strolled around the zoo for 75 minutes, until somebody's tranquilizer gun put her safely into a deep ape sleep.

Media helicopters terrified Evelyn. Too bad she didn't swat one.

But at least for a while, it was one great story.

A gorilla loose in Los Angeles? In that story, the gorilla's the underdog.

*

Mike Downey's column appears Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays. Write to: Los Angeles Times, 202 W. 1st St., Los Angeles, CA 90012. E-mail: mike.downey@latimes.com

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