She was a gem of a human!
Mary Jeanette Wilson grew up in West Baltimore, born to parents Willie Wilson and Mary Henry, her mother passed away of diphtheria when she was only 5 years old, The New York Times reports. She spent a lot of her childhood moving between the homes of various family members, causing her to be separated from her sister for a period of time. She found her love for animals early; shortly after graduating from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, she landed a job at the local zoo when she was only 21 years old.
Arthur R. Watson ran the zoo from 1948 to 1980, hiring Ms. Williams with virtually no experience, something he says wouldn’t get her in the door today.
“[She had 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,” Watson told The Baltimore Sun in 1996.
But as fate would have it, Wilson was made for the job! Whereas most women start out in zoos working with birds or other nursery-like animals, Wilson went immediately for the larger animals, spending most of her career working with gorillas, cats, and elephants in the Mammal House.
“She started working at the zoo in 1961. 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,” said her daughter, Sharron Wilson Jackson.
Wilson went on to become the first Black senior zookeeper in Baltimore at The Maryland Zoo, even inspiring her daughter to follow in her footsteps, Jackson making history when she got older as the first Black woman to be a zookeeper at the Omaha City Zoo.
“She was very, very in touch with animals…Mom was a single parent of one, me. She gave me the same privileges as she did those animals, by which I mean, she gave me the freedom to be me, but very protective. She gave me that rope. I never felt restrained,” explained Jackson.
Her daughter recalled moments as a child when her mother would bring home baby snakes, monkeys, and even baboons. She remembered one time when she was 8 and she swaddled a baby gorilla, taking it with her as she ran errands. On one particular occasion, Jackson and Wilson traveled in the middle of the night to the zoo to take care of a sick elephant named Joe. It was a moment that Jackson said she won’t ever forget.
“It’s like babysitting, only more so, and you can get just as attached to your work,” Ms. Wilson told reporters in 1966.
Mike J. McClure, the general curator of the animal department at the zoo, said he met Wilson when he was just a young zookeeper. He remembered her attentiveness to the animals, remarking that at 6ft, Wilson would stand eye to eye with the elephants.
“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…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,” said McClure.
Wilson had many relationships like that with a lot of the animals, including big cats, zoo officials once warning Wilson to stop play-tussling with a 2-year-old Jaguar who had grown large enough to become dangerous. During the 1960s, the zoo welcomed a baby gorilla named Sylvia. The orphan gorilla came from the Congo when she was only 10 months, taking to Wilson as her adoptive mother.
“Sylvia was like a baby to me. She was this cute little, reddish-colored gorilla. We had to care for her just like we’d care for a human baby. The first thing I did when I came in the morning was 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,” Wilson previously recalled.
She even went as far as to teach Sylvia how to feed herself with a spoon. In 1981, the zoo decided it no longer had the proper facilities to care for gorillas, transferring Sylvia and another gorilla, Hercules, to the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. Wilson cried when Sylvia left, describing the experience as “awful.”
Sylvia would be moved once again to the zoo in Columbus, Ohio. This time, Wilson was asked to travel with her. There, Sylvia met a baby gorilla whose mother had abandoned her. Sylvia then became a surrogate mother to her, something that was shocking to zoo officials since Sylvia had never given birth herself. They attributed her nurturing attributes to the influence of Wilson and what she did for her when she was young so many years prior.
“They said it was because of how I raised her that she was so good with that youngster,” Ms. Wilson told The Sun.
“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,” said Carol M. Barth, who worked with Wilson at the then-Baltimore Zoo from 1973 to 1991.
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Wilson retired in 1999, leaving an irreplaceable impact in her field of work. At home, Wilson’s preferred animals were dogs. But she still spent time traveling, often collecting small elephant figurines and making sure she walked at least 2 miles each day. In the latter years of her life, she was diagnosed with dementia as a result of Alzheimer’s. Her daughter said that despite trying to keep her at home, Wilson eventually had to be admitted to a care facility, something that was quite difficult for a woman used to being out and about.
“She was always trying to get out. You think of a woman that’s walked for 38 years in acres of land at the zoo…she doesn’t want to be packed up nowhere,” said Jackson.
In 2020, Wilson contracted the coronavirus and while she lay in her hospital bed, her daughter looked for ways to connect with her mother via Facetime, with Wilson remaining virtually unresponsive to any stimuli. Jackson said she found a glimmer of hope when she connected with her mom through an old familiar story, the one of Joe, the sick elephant.
“For 14 days, she never responded to anything. Her eyes were closed and I could hear her horribly coughing. She did not speak…The last time I talked to her was on FaceTime May 20[th, 2020]. 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…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,” recalled Jackson.
“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,” she added.
Wilson passed the next day at the age of 83, leaving a legacy of excellence that her daughter, grandson, great-grandson, and great-great-granddaughter could all be proud of.
Thank you for everything Ms. Wilson. Because of you, we can!
Meet Mary J. Wilson, the first Black senior zookeeper at the Maryland Zoo. Photo Courtesy of Maryland Zoo/Independent