Today this nationally recognized animal habitat is home (for ten years from 1999 until 2009) to two giant pandas, Lun Lun and Yang Yang, on loan from the Chengdu Zoo in China. Primates run free in the Ford African Rain Forest and the people are contained to an intricate maze of pathways. It is quite different from the Grant Park Zoo that was named one of the ten worst zoos in the country in the early 1980's. The dramatic turnaround was witnessed with great interest not only by the citizens of Atlanta and North Georgia, but by the entire world. The turmoil brought international fame to Willie B., a silverback gorilla who came to represent both the zoo and its recovery.
The Grant Park Zoo was established in 1889 from the remnants of a traveling circus that had run afoul of its unpaid employees. "Popcorn George" Hall sold his menagerie to a local lumber merchant, George Gress. The animals became the centerpiece of the zoo in a 131-acre park donated to the city by developer Lemuel P. Grant in 1883. Gress later purchased The Battle of Atlanta, now housed in The Cyclorama next to the zoo.
Over the years the Grant Park Zoo slowly became known as Municipal Zoo. Although Grant Park was open to all Americans, both the zoo and the Cyclorama were white-only. It would take almost 80 years to change this.
An early and popular addition to the zoo was "Clio the Elephant." The money used to acquire the elephant was given to a "penny campaign," a popular way of raising money at the time. This campaign, which was aimed at Atlanta's children, also served as a marketing tool for Grant Park Zoo. The elephant was named in honor of Clio Hall wife of the popular fire chief and future mayor.
Willie B. came to the United States in 1961 from his homeland in Cameroon. Originally, he represented all that was wrong with the Municipal Zoo. Kept in a small cage with only a black and white television for company and a tire swing for exercise, it was his bleak existence that officials tried to defend when Atlanta's zoo ended up at the top of a list of the 10 worst zoos in the country in 1984. There was talk of closing the zoo and taking Willie B. back to the lowland jungles of Cameroon, but the people of Atlanta have a long history of "resurgence." Rather than give up the zoo hired Terry Maples to oversee the creation of an animal habitat.
From the ashes of the Municipal Zoo rose Zoo Atlanta, and Willie B.'s new home, the Ford African Rain Forest. In 1988 the noble primate was free for the first time in over twenty five years. He entered his new home, briefly looked it over, then walked to the top of a small hill and claimed it as his. He was frequently pictured sitting on top of that hill in solitude.
Veterinarians were afraid that Willie B. would not be compatible with other silverback gorillas, but the successful introduction of three females brought Willie companionship and, in 1994, his first offspring. A fourth female was introduced to the family later, and Willie eventually sired a total of 5 gorillas.
In December 1999 41-year old Willie B. contracted pneumonia and he died on February 2, 2000. But the zoo lives on. The addition of the pandas has made the zoo the pride of Atlanta, and they have overshadowed the abundant animal life in a natural habitat.
Other animals, including elephants, rhinos, and zebra also roam freely in the exotically named Masai Mara. Lions have a designated area here, away from the other animals. Safari-garbed guides are available throughout the zoo. Be sure to note the feeding time posted for your favorite animals and make an effort to return then.