Would you like to hear my story about a special gorilla in the Atlanta Zoo? It is called Zoo Atlanta now, but when I was growing up, it was simply called Atlanta Zoo. Our class went there for our eighth grade field trip. At that time, the gorillas and chimps were kept in what was called "the monkey house". I don't know if that was the official name or not (hey, I was just 13 years old!) but that is what we heard it called. There was a very large silverback gorilla named Willie B. and he was in a cage all by himself.
When our group came up to the cage, the boys in our group began to taunt him and make monkey noises and to say "Look at us monkey, hoo, hoo". Willie B. had his body turned away from us and we could not see his face at all. The boys kept making these monkey-like noises and suddenly, he turned his face directly toward the boys and looked at them with such a fierce and intelligent manner that it completely silenced the boys. We girls were astounded at this and the boys, after a few seconds, were stammering, "Did you see his FACE? He wanted to KILL us!" And they were right, his expression was undeniably clear. He had a very angry face, but he only looked that way at the boys, not the girls, he looked at us, as if to say, "Too bad you have to be with such idiots."
At that time, Willie B. only had a tire swing in this cage. A few years later, they gave him a TV set (depending on your view, either for entertainment or further punishment.) So, his life was this way from 1961 until 1988. What happened in 1988? It was wonderful, one of the best things that I have ever had the pleasure to witness on the TV screen, I only wish I could have seen it in person. The zoo was able to build a natural habitat for the gorillas and Willie B. was released out of his prison cage and allowed to walk outside under trees and to see the sky. The important thing to know about this particular gorilla is that he was captured as a baby from Africa, he was not born in captivity. So, he KNEW what it was to be free. Many people believed that once he was released, he would be afraid, that he wouldn't know how to handle the transition. I had looked in his eyes, and I felt that he would know just what to do. Sure enough, when the doors were opened, he stepped outside into the sunlight and he walked carefully and slowly. Gently, ever so gently he reached up to a tree and delicately touched a leaf between two of his fingers.
Well, I don't know about anyone else, but I held my breath when he walked out and when he touched that leaf! This brought tears to my eyes and I was so grateful to all those who made that moment happen. You can read all about Willie B. on the Zoo Atlanta web-site and also on WikiPedia, but they won't tell you about the boys taunting him or the special moment when he grasped that leaf. ( I have found a photo of Willie B. touching the leaf that I described here.)
Our son, who was born in 1989, was able to enjoy seeing Willie B. in this natural outdoor habitat and he would always look out for him, as Zoo Atlanta was one of his favorite places to go. He liked me telling him my story of the boys who taunted him and how Willie B. made them stop by just one look. Willie B. died in February of 2000, but there are many others, like me, who remember him in that tiny cage and seeing the look of intelligence in his face and rejoicing in his freedom.