Man Risks His Life Diving Into Zoo Enclosure When Staff Wouldn’t Save A Helpless Drowning Chimp

When he took his family to the Detroit Zoo one day in 1990, truck driver Rick Swope probably never imagined he’d find himself diving into one of the animal enclosures. But that’s exactly what happened at the chimpanzee exhibit. A fight broke out between a chimp named Jo-Jo and another male and while he was being chased, Jo-Jo slipped and fell into the protective moat. Chimpanzees can’t swim and if the water is deep enough they’ll simply drown. Swope realized someone had to do something and fast. “It was the most pitiful thing I ever saw. This chimp had his hands up and his head was sticking out of the water. He was looking at the crowd. It was like he wanted someone to rescue him.”

Despite the obvious danger, Swope leaped into the enclosure and dove into the moat. On his first try, he lost his grip on the 135-pound chimpanzee. Zoo staff warned him to get out but the other visitors were cheering him on. “People were showing me which direction he was in. The water was so dirty you couldn’t see through it. I swam around on the bottom. Finally, I found him.” Swope managed to drag Jo-Jo to safety. “He was pretty lifeless, but you could see he was still alive. He was looking at me. I think he knew what was going on.” Fortunately, Swope was able to climb out of the enclosure before the other, more aggressive chimp could get at him.

So why did Rick Swope risk it all? “Well, you see, I happened to look into his eyes, and it was like looking into the eyes of a man, and the message was, ‘Won’t anybody help me?'” When primate expert Jane Goodall heard the story, she understood Swope’s reaction, noting, “If you see that look with your eyes, and you feel it in your heart, you have to jump in and try to help.”

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