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Mary J. Wilson, first African American senior zookeeper at the Baltimore Zoo, dies of the coronavirus

Mary J. Wilson worked at the Baltimore Zoo from 1961 to 1999, caring primarily for gorillas, cats and elephants. She's pictured here in February 1966.
Mary J. Wilson worked at the Baltimore Zoo from 1961 to 1999, caring primarily for gorillas, cats and elephants. She's pictured here in February 1966. (STACKS/Richard Stacks, Baltimore Sun file photo)

Mary J. Wilson, the first African American senior zookeeper at what is now the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore whose expertise was caring for gorillas and elephants, died Thursday at Northwest Hospital in Randallstown of the coronavirus. The former Ashburton resident was 83.

Mike J. McClure, who is general curator of the animal department at the zoo, was a young novice zookeeper when he met Ms. Wilson.

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“I was very lucky being able to work with Mary. It was an invaluable experience and she put me on the right track,” the Forest Hill resident said. “She was a very interesting lady, very sweet and kind, but very structured and firm. She was respectful and treated you fairly and had compassion, and that’s how she treated the animals and they responded to it. She treated them like equals.”

Said Carol M. Barth, of Parkville, who worked with Ms. Wilson at the then-Baltimore Zoo from 1973 to 1991: “Mary brought love, skill and passion to her work with the animals at the zoo. She was also like everyone’s mentor. She was a mother, friend and supervisor. What a great woman.”

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Mary Jeanette Wilson, daughter of Willie Wilson and Mary Henry, was born and raised in West Baltimore and graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School.

“She started working at the zoo in 1961,” said her daughter, Sharron Wilson Jackson, an Ashburton resident who is a retired Platinum Hill Records executive and former owner of Sound Sages Entertainment. “She was an animal lover and had always loved them, and her love of them rubbed off on me. Gorillas and elephants were her favorites.”

Arthur R. Watson, who headed the zoo from 1948 to 1980, hired Ms. Wilson, whose only qualifications, The Sun reported in 1996, were a “willingness to work hard and a love of animals. In these days of specialized training, she probably wouldn’t get past the front door.”

At the time of her hire, most women started out working with birds or nursery-type animals, but Ms. Wilson went right into caring for mammals. She spent her entire career working with gorillas, cats and elephants in the Mammal House.

“It’s like baby-sitting, only more so, and you can get just as attached to your work,” Ms. Wilson told the old Sunday Sun Magazine in 1966.

Said Mr. McClure: “She had a special relationship with animals. She was very consistent and very clear. She was very tall and could look eye-to-eye to Dolly the elephant. And she’d do what Mary told her to do because she treated her like an equal.”

He said Ms. Wilson was “fearless” when working with elephants but was “terrified by mice.”

In the mid-1960s, a baby gorilla named Sylvia, who was less than a year old, came to the zoo from the Congo, and because she had no mother, it fell to Ms. Wilson to assume that role. Sylvia was then about 10 months old, weighed 18 pounds, 8 ounces, and was about 23 inches tall.

“Sylvia was like a baby to me. She was this cute little reddish-colored gorilla,” she explained to The Sun in 1996. “We had to care for her just like we’d care for a human baby. The first thing when I came in the morning, I used to give her a bath. Then I’d feed her breakfast. I’d cook three-minute eggs for her. She just became like my little daughter.”

Ms. Wilson eventually taught Sylvia how to use a spoon with which she could feed herself.

As Sylvia grew, it became apparent that Ms. Wilson could no longer hold her, and by 1981, the zoo decided it lacked the proper facilities for gorillas, so Sylvia and Hercules, the other gorilla at the zoo, were sent to the National Zoo in Washington.

Ms. Wilson cried when Sylvia left. “It was awful,” she told The Sun.

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When Sylvia was later moved to the Columbus, Ohio, zoo, Ms. Wilson was asked to accompany her. At her new home, the gorilla became a surrogate mother to a baby gorilla whose mother wanted nothing to do with her baby, even though Sylvia had never been a mother.

Zoo officials said it was probably Ms. Wilson’s influence that made Sylvia care for the abandoned gorilla.

“They said it was because of how I raised her that she was so good with that youngster,” Ms. Wilson told The Sun.

One time when Ms. Wilson went on vacation, she asked zoo officials whether she could take home and care for a baby baboon, because it was used to her and she feared an unfamiliar handler might upset the infant.

Another time, zoo officials had to ask Ms. Wilson to stop scuffling with a 2-year-old jaguar because the animal had grown large enough to be considered dangerous.

Her own pet preference at home was dogs.

Ms. Wilson, who retired in 1999, enjoyed taking cruises and collecting wooden, glass or china elephants, her daughter said. She walked no less than 2 miles a day.

A soprano, she enjoyed singing popular songs but “mostly gospel,” her daughter said.

Ms. Wilson had moved April 1 to Genesis Healthcare Patapsco Valley Center in Randallstown and was diagnosed May 4 with COVID-19.

“She had started showing that she had Alzheimer’s disease, but was still physically good and very strong, I guess that came from all those years walking at the zoo,” her daughter said. “She started getting confused last July.”

Ms. Wilson entered Northwest Hospital on May 8.

“For 14 days, she never responded to anything. Her eyes were closed and I could hear her horribly coughing. She did not speak,” said Ms. Jackson who kept in touch with her mother via FaceTime.

“The last time I talked to her was on FaceTime May 20. I told her about the time we went to the zoo in the middle of the night so she could care for a sick elephant,” her daughter said.

"I told her, ‘Remember when you told the elephant to move its head from side to side?’ Until then, my mother had made no movement, but when I asked her to shake her head from side to side, she did. She did what the elephant did, she moved her head from side to side and I lost it. She remembered.”

Ms. Jackson added: “It showed me that she had heard me. I was so grateful for that day. I came up with that story from more than 30 years ago and she responded. She connected with Joe the elephant."

Ms. Wilson died the next day.

Plans for a celebration-of-life gathering to be held at Druid Hill Park are incomplete because of the pandemic.

In addition to her daughter, Ms. Wilson is survived by a grandson; a great-grandson; and a great-granddaughter.

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