Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Willie B. And Me

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.


  1. I see why my posting struck a chord!

    I think all zoos in the UK changed their outlook during the 1980s and 1990s and many were closed down by government legislation in the 1990s because they couldn't provide suitable habitats for their animals.

    I love visitng Chester zoo but still remember the days they had polar bears in s amll concrete enclosure with a tiny pool and a cave just about big enough for a double bed. It was such a sad sight. Nowadays all the animals there have a reasonable environment (and they no longer have polar bears) and one has to admire the work they do helping endangered animals to breed.

  2. My feelings about zoos are mixed, but I admit I enjoy visiting the Wilhelma, the Stuttgart one. They participate in breeding programs for endangered species, and many years ago have moved some species to zoos where better habitat was provided for them. The ones that are there (and there's a great many of them!) mostly have habitats that were set up less with the visitor in mind and more with the animal in mind, and they are constantly working on improvements. Some parts of the zoo are walk-through areas without bars and fences. I have done 3 tours behind the scenes there, and learnt quite a lot of interesting stuff by that. Still, it means animals in captivity, and therefore, the mixed feelings remain.

  3. Scriptor,
    Zoo Atlanta was almost closed down. Thankfully, a group of responsible citizens stepped in and it was saved. Most of the animals are in a more natural environment now. I have a fond memory of coming up over a hill wearing a white shirt, and seeing a lion on the hill opposite me crouch down as if to stalk me, I was thankful there was a moat between us, but it was quite a moment!

  4. Meike,
    Zoos leave me with mixed feelings also. I think that if it can help people care and appreciate animals more then it is a good thing. Are they really still imprisoned, even in a "natural enviroment"? The answer is yes.
    After Willie B. died, they wanted to send his ashes back to Africa (which is what I wanted). I think that 80% of his ashes are interred in a statue of him at the Zoo and 20% were sent to Africa. When I read that 80/20 percentage, I felt like I could see the expression that he gave to us girls...

  5. I don't really like going to zoos. Sure, I'm interested in seeing the animals but I just feel sad for them being in a cage. I mean, who would want to be in a cage and stared upon by lots of people? It's very uncomfortable. :(

  6. Denise,
    Yes, but what would be done with these animals?
    Many of them have been in bred in captivity and would not be able to survive in the wild.
    I visited the London Zoo only once but remember it vividly. I think that it might actually have been the very first "Zoo".

  7. What a poignant story, Kay!

    Zoos sure have come a long way since when I was a kid. One of the most impressive outdoor wilderness zoos I had been to was the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum. We spent hours there observing animals in their natural habitat. I think they were all animals who had been injured in some way or who could not have survived in the wild for some other reason.

    And one of the most beautiful moments I ever witnessed was the interaction between a little girl and a chimpanzee at the San Diego zoo. There was such a connection between the two...

    I hope you are doing well!! Hugs, Silke

  8. Good Morning from the California desert.
    I was born and reared in Georgia, northwest Atlanta area, Smyrna to be specific. My husband grew up in Clarkston.
    I'm happy to have found your blog! And isn't it interesting that I came to you by way of Scriptor, GB, and Librarian...half-way around the world.

  9. What a touching story. I am glad they made the improvements to the zoo! I was always a fan of the zoo - it's been awhile since I've been to our local zoo. I think I should make plans to visit with my nieces and nephews!


  10. Silke, Thanks! The Arizona one sounds like a place I would like to see. And if you witnessed an interaction between a young girl and a chimp, maybe we could hear about it on YOUR blog? :-) And yes, today my patch of trouble in my life was weeded through and hopefully, all will be well. Thanks for your kind thoughts.

  11. Jill,
    Hey, fellow Georgia Girl! So glad you left a comment! My FAVORITE aunt, my Aunt Leona, lived in Smyrna for most of her married life. (She was born in Toccoa, just like me). Funnily enough, her daughter (my cousin) went to a visit to San Diego in the early 70's and announced that she was "home" and never came back! She has lived there ever since!
    Love your comments that I have read, hope you will like to read my blog too.

  12. Elizabeth,
    Thank you! I hope you are able to take your nieces and nephews to the zoo. I'll bet you have a good one where you live!

  13. Hi Kay, You asked about referring to a post of mine. I agree Blog etiquette can be difficult because different people have different views and wishes.
    I'm more than happy for people to refer to my posts and quote from them and there's no need to noptify me though, of course, I'm always inetersted to know. I do ask that people let me know when they are using my phtos (and they are only avsilable for commercial use after being purchased).

  14. Scriptor,
    Thanks! Oh yes, if I ever mention any of your posts, then I will certainly let you know. It took me the longest time to realize that the photos on your blog were really ones that YOU had taken. (I thought you just got them off the internet!)
    The Three Wise Monkeys...just uncanny that not only had I planned on doing my post on Willie B. that same day, but also that I have an issue with someone telling "porkies" on me. Some pretty evil stuff honestly, and somehow, I just can't write about it. When I can, I will let you know.