Atlanta

Celebrating 75: How a gorilla became the symbol of resurgence for Zoo Atlanta

ATLANTA — For 75 years, Channel 2 Action News has been covering firsts at Zoo Atlanta.

May 13 marked the 35th anniversary of Willie B.’s entry into the Ford African Rain Forest.

It all began in 1889 when a traveling show bound for Marietta stalled and the animals were left behind.

A businessman named George Gress bought the animals at a public auction and donated them to the city of Atlanta.

The animals were then taken to Grant Park -- a favorite picnic destination at the time.

From 1951 to 1967, the zoo underwent a flurry of renovations. The era also marked the arrival of one of the zoo’s most beloved animals -- an infant gorilla who joined the family in 1961.

The gorilla was named for then-Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield, he would be known forever as “Willie B.”

“One of our iconic moments in history was when Willie B, who is just a legend in Atlanta, first stepped out into a natural habitat. He had spent his life in a cage like most zoo animals, and a TV and a swing to play with, and that was about it. And he stepped out into this beautiful natural habitat and WSB filmed it and it was just a very breathtaking emotional moment for Atlanta,” Zoo Atlanta president and CEO Raymond King said.

CELEBRATING 75 YEARS:

Despite a decade of progress, it would not be long before many of the zoo’s facilities became outdated.

In 1970, a group of citizens united with the purpose of driving fundraising, recruiting volunteers, and raising awareness of the zoo’s education, conservation, and research efforts.

This group became the Atlanta Zoological Society. One of the early projects of the society was to suggest charging admission.

“We’re a great example of how zoos have evolved over the years and WSB’s been great to help us celebrate that. Back in the mid-80s, we completely transformed the zoo,” King said.

1999 was an unforgettable year for the zoo with the arrival of a pair of giant pandas on loan from China.

One would later give birth to the first pair of surviving giant panda twins ever born in the United States.

The gorilla, who had become the symbol of the zoo’s resurgence, was eulogized by Ambassador Andrew Young and was memorialized by a crowd of over 5,000 people.

Gorillas were household names again in 2005 when Kuchi delivered a rare set of twins.

At that time, no mother gorilla had ever successfully reared twins in a zoo without the benefit of human intervention, but Kuchi proved a record-breaker.

Willie B.’s first grandchild, Macy Baby, was born to Kudzoo in December 2005. Macy would later be joined by five more of Willie B.’s grandchildren

The zoo is continually enhancing the habitats, saying every time they rebuild them, they go to a higher level.

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