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Access Points 23: Willie B. gorilla statue at Zoo Atlanta

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The Willie B. statue at Zoo Atlanta was featured in this week's Access Points photo game. AJC/Jamie Gumbrecht

Did something in this week’s Access Point photo game look familiar? It certainly did to Twitter users @ratpack and @lisaashmore — they were the first to correctly guess that it was the Willie B. statue at Zoo Atlanta.

Since Atlanta said good-bye to its first panda cub, Mei Lan, this week, I thought we should look back on some zoo history, and an animal we’ve bid farewell to before.

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Willie B, shortly after he arrived at Zoo Atlanta.

The most famous, of course, is Willie B., a 400-pound silverback gorilla and undisputed king of Atlanta’s zoo. The gorilla was born in the wild in Africa, came to the Grant Park Zoo as a baby in 1961 and lived for decades in a cage with only a television for entertainment. In the 1980s, Atlanta’s zoo was known as one of the country’s worst, and it lost its accreditation. But with new leadership and a capital campaign, the facilities improved, and Willie B. — named for Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield — became its symbol of change.

In 1988, the Ford African Rain Forest opened inside the zoo, and Willie B. took his first steps outdoors since infancy. He was well into confirmed bachelorhood and hadn’t had contact with other gorillas, but in 1994,  he sired his first daughter — then three more daughters and a son after that.

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Willie in his cage in 1981.

He died 10 years ago this month after 41 years and a bad heart caught up with him as he battled pneumonia. About 2,500 people attended a memorial service for the gorilla on Feb. 5, 2000, and Zoo Atlanta officials announced plans to scatter his ashes in his native Africa.

They also commissioned a statue by artist Edwin Bogucki, who used hundreds of videos and photos and interviews with Charles Horton, the keeper who cared for Willie for decades, to create a life-size memorial to be kept in the zoo.

But instability in Cameroon meant required zoo officials to find another resting place for Willie B., one that some Atlantans wished for all along: his ashes are at Zoo Atlanta, inside that life-size bronze statue.

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Willie B, right, shared his basket of Father's Day melon, berries, apricots, nuts and sugar cane with his oldest child, Kudzoo, in 1999. AJC file photo

Want to go? Zoo Atlanta. 9:30 a.m.-5:30 p.m. $13.99-$18.99, free for kids younger than 2. 800 Cherokee Ave. inside Grant Park, Atlanta. 404-624-9453,

For instant updates, follow @insideaccess on Twitter.

3 comments Add your comment

Me too

March 11th, 2010
10:09 am

I was about 11 yrs old the 1st time I saw Willie B. He was amazing. But as I look back on it. Being confined to a cage for 27 years was extremly inhumane…being stared at by a bunch of people with nothing else to do! Thank God the last 12 years of his life was for the better. I wonder why people confine their animals in this matter. All living things needs space and outdoors. That’s the reason it was created. I guess money rules everything. My heart goes out to Willie, even today, over 10 years after his death. May he have the peace in death he never had in life. May the Lord handle the torturers as he takes care of those that were tortured. May God hold Willie in the palm of his hands. We miss you.


February 4th, 2010
5:23 pm

God, I remember seeing him in that cement block as a kid. Someone even stole his TV. The old Zoo was horrific! He had a tough life.

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