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Monday, September 28, 2009

Willie B.: Atlanta's Favorite Gorilla











For those of us who grew up in the city of Atlanta, the capital of the state of Georgia, you may remember Willie B. who was a very special Gorilla that resided at the zoo from 1961 until 2000.
But in order to tell the tale of Willie B., we may want to start with the man he was named after.








William B. Hartsfield was the mayor of Atlanta at the time and he was known for his hot temper, successful attempts to modernize and attract business to the city, progessive (for the time) racial views, and a checkered personal life. Mayor Hartsfield was notoriously quick to anger. In one famous incident he actually broke his hand after banging on the rail of the speaker's desk in the House of Representatives.




Hartsfield was known for his relatively liberal views on race. He coined the famous phrase that Atlanta was a "city to busy to hate." In 1948, he integrated the Atlanta police force, not only because he believed in equal rights, but because he believed it would improve law enforcement in a largely African American city. He was also the chief architect of the new, modernized Atlanta. He had a life long love of airplanes and he was instrumental in the modernization of what was then called the Atlanta airport; after his death the airport was renamed after him: Hartsfield.




So it seemed eminently suitable that, because of his attitude, Mayor Hartsfield would lend his name to a Gorilla. Silverbacks are known for their passionate displays of anger when they are protecting their troup from danger. If an unwelcome intrudor comes into his territory, a silverback will do everything they can to make sure their group stays safe. However, the Gorilla was not given the nickname "gentle giant" for nothing. If the threat leaves, Gorillas will not give chase, but turn peacefully back to whatever they were doing before the threat arrived.




Willie B. came to the Atlanta Zoo (what it was called before Zoo Atlanta) in the spring of 1961 when he was around 2-3 years old after he was kidnapped by animal dealers in the wilds of Africa. Back then the zoo was an old fashioned type zoo where bored animals were forced to live in miserable conditions like non-stimulating cages. It was almost a throw back to the old circus days where animals were conveniently placed in front of people with no thought to what the animal needed or wanted.




As Willie grew older the outdated conditions of his inside cage became painfully clear and something had to be done for the obviously intelligent, obviously bored animal. Enter the famous television set which the zoo hoped would keep Willie occupied.
In 1984 scandal struck the zoo when it was revealed that an Elephant named Twinkles who was supposedly sent to a special farm to recuperate from an illness, had actually been sent to a roadsize zoo where she soon died. The Atlanta Zoo was named one of the worst zoos in the world by Parade magazine.




Stung by all of the negative publicity, the zoo underwent an extremely radical transformation. Andrew Young who was mayor of Atlanta appointed Dr. Terry Maple as the zoo's new director and in 1985, Zoo Atlanta was born. One of the residents that benefited the most from the renovations was Willie B.. On May 13, 1988 Willie B. stepped outside for the very first time into a lush and roomy, naturalistic habitat where he would then have the ability to be able to socialize with his own kind, something he hadn't been able to do since 1961.
William B. Hartsfield, like many prominant politicians, had a very controversial personal life.








There were rumors of several romantic entanglements, and according to his biographer, Harold Martin, he went to the hospital for an "operation" that would later save him from personal and political embarassment of a possible paternity suit (i.e, a vasectomy). Hartsfield retired from politics in '61 because he wanted to divorce his wife and marry a widowed former secretary and he knew his political career would inevitably be severerely damaged by this action.




Like his human namesake Willie B.'s romantic exploits were also highly publicized. The Gorilla population is highly threatened by underpopulation worldwide so Gorilla watchers everywhere were eagerly watching Willie B.'s courting gestures towards the many females he was housed with in his enclosure.




Finally, in February of 1994 Willie B.'s first offspring, a little female named Kudzu was born. Widespread celebration ensued when Willie impregnanted Choomba, Kudzu's mother. Billboards went up all over town asking the question, "Willie or won't he?" and "Willie B. a boy or girl?" A naming contest was held to name the child and Kudzu is the name that was chosen. It seems only fitting that a famous infant such as her would be named after a trademark plant of the south.




Four other offspring would soon follow: Olympia (born on June 22, 1996, she was named for the Olympics which were in town at the time), Sukari, Kidogo (a.k.a "Willie B. Jr."), and Lulu.
Atlanta joined the zoo in mourning when the mighty silverback passed way in February of 2000.








The Gorilla that became a symbol of the zoo's rebirth was eulogized by Ambassador Andrew Young, memorialized by almost 15,000 people, and remembered by media all over the world including Time Magazine.




Although Willie is no longer with us, his legacy at Zoo Atlanta will live on. It is always a joy to hear many of the adult visitors recounting stories of their visits to the zoo when they were younger to their own children and grandchildren and remembering the Gorilla who touched them all.




Willie B.'s cremated remains are placed inside a life-size memorial statue near Amy's Tree on the other side of the viewing deck.
All five of Willie B.'s children still reside at Zoo Atlanta, and for those of you who may not know








Willie B.'s daughters, Kudzu and Sukari, now have children of their own! Kudzu has a 3 yr. old (soon to be a 4 yr. old on December 12th of this year) named Macy B. and Sukari has a 3 yr. old named Gunther. Look for them in Yard 3 (right in front of the Willie B. Gorilla Conservation Center building) and also in front of the viewing deck.

2 comments:

  1. This is such a fascinating story! It is so sad to think of Willie B living under those lonely conditions for so long. I am glad to see zoos have come a long way since then. Willie B's daughter Olympia now lives in a nice situation in North Carolina and recently had baby Apollo. You can read all about Apollo and his half-brother Bomassa (not descended from Willie B) right here. http://zoobabyprints.blogspot.com/2013/01/apollo-baby-gorilla-adoring-his-mom.html

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    1. I was so excited when I first heard that Olympia had a baby of her own. Olympia is a smart girl is known for her many adventurous exploits so I am sure that she has many things to teach her son! And if he's ANYTHING at all like his mom, the zookeepers there better lookout! :P

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