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Thursday, April 10, 2014

Zoo History: The Life and Times of Willie B.

By the early 1980's, the Grant Park Zoo in Atlanta, Georgia was one of the saddest municipal zoos in the country.  It was dilapidated.  It was run down.  It had even been named one of the ten worst zoos in America by Parade Magazine - and considering how bad a lot of other zoos were back in those days, that was really saying something.  Perhaps the most poignant, depressing symbol of how bad things were at the zoo was the zoo's star attraction, Willie B.

Willie B. was a lowland gorilla.  Named for mayor William B. Hartsfield, his life was typical of many other zoo gorillas at that time.  He had been born in Africa, the captive breeding of gorillas still something of a rarity at that point.  He was housed in a small, tiled cage, alone - alone, that is, except for a small television set, which (apart from his keepers and visitors) was his sole companion.  He got fat, he got morose, and he behaved rather like a person would if they were kept in a small tiled room with just a TV.  He was depressed, and he was depressing in turn.

 The Atlanta Zoo's bad publicity finally prompted the city and concerned citizens to do something about it.  Some folks called for the zoo to be shut down; others had a vision of a zoo that could be something more than a series of cinderblock boxes fronted with iron bars.  A new leadership team, headed by Dr. Terry Maple, was given authority to make drastic changes to the zoo.  Their first priority - Willie B.

In 1988, after 27 years of nothing but tiles and TV, Willie B. stepped outside for the first time since he had arrived at the zoo.  It must have been a horrifying experience for him - everything so new and different, from the feel of the wind to the sound of birds to the smells in the air.  I wonder if he felt tempted to rush back inside to what was safe and sterile and familiar.  He adjusted well, however, and soon the zoo staff felt it was time to introduce him to the last component of his life that he had been missing - other gorillas.

In 1994, Willie B sired his first child, a daughter named Kudzu.  Over the next five years, four more children, including a son (Willie B. Jr) were born). The lone gorilla had become a silver-backed patriarch, surrounded by bounding, playful youngsters and placidly feeding females.  When he passed away in 2000 at the age of 41, he was surrounded by family.

When a zoo gorilla dies, he or she leaves a hole in the hearts of their troop, as well as their keepers.  Willie B. left something more.  His plight had helped turn the Atlanta Zoo - dirty, ramshackle, inhumane - into Zoo Atlanta, one of the world's finest zoos and one now renown for its excellent gorilla habitat, with twenty-some apes calling its lush Ford African Rainforest exhibit home.  His history also inspired the zoo to reach out and rescue Ivan, a gorilla like Willie B. who had lived in isolation in an inappropriate environment (this time a shopping mall).

Willie B was cremated after death.  Most of his ashes are entombed at Zoo Atlanta, while a small portion were scattered in Africa.  Today, the zoo boasts of the Willie B Conservation Center, and a life-sized statue of the gentle giant watches over the zoo.

Zoos are not perfect, as anyone can tell you, but they are constantly changing, struggling to improve themselves, their facilities, and the quality of life that they offer their animals.  Anyone needing a reminder of this can look to the life of Willie B.


  1. I remember seeing Willie B. in the tiled room as a child, and feeling bad for him. This story gives me happy tears!

  2. He also had a tire swing, if I recall, and liked to swing it into the plexiglass separating him from observers!