How Willie B came to Atlanta, plus more history of the zoo

If you’re new in town or have questions about this special place we call home, ask us! E-mail Andy Johnston at q&a@ajc.com or call 404-222-2002.

Q: How long has Atlanta had a zoo? Has it always been at Grant Park? When was Willie B. there?

A: Zoo Atlanta's beginnings were more accidental than planned, resulting from when the big top made a big stop.

A traveling circus was heading through the city one day in March 1889, when it ran out of money. So it stopped, creating the first traffic jam on the Connector.

Sorry, just kidding about that part. I’ll get back to the story.

Without cash and workers, the animals were left to languish in their cages until local businessman George V. Gress bought the entire menagerie, which included, according to ZooAtlanta.org, a jaguar, a hyena, a black bear, a raccoon, an elk, a gazelle, a Mexican hog, lionesses, pumas, camels and snakes.

No Hawks or Falcons. They came later.

Gress quickly donated the impressive variety of animals to Atlanta, and since they were already at Grant Park, they stayed there and became the city’s first cultural attraction, Zoo Atlanta claims.

The first elephant – named Clio — arrived in 1890 and the zoo received an unexpected influx of animals in 1935, when Asa G. Candler Jr., a son of Coca-Cola magnate Asa Candler, donated his collection of exotic beasts to the zoo.

It’s been written that his Druid Hills neighbors didn’t appreciate all the issues that came with having wild animals in Briarcliff Road’s neighborhood setting, including the “sounds, smells and occasional forays off the property,” Zoo Atlanta states on its website.

I can see why, since Candler owned elephants, leopards, water buffalo, elk, zebra, a hyena, a sea lion and a tiger, which all soon became part of the growing zoo.

A baby gorilla arrived in 1961 and soon became the zoo’s most famous resident.

Named Willie B., after Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield, the gorilla lived a lonely life in basically a cell for 27 years, until funds helped Zoo Atlanta build a rain forest habitat for the gorillas that opened in 1988.

Willie B. was 30 years old when he wandered into his lush outdoor home and spent the next 12 years there until he died in 2000.

Zoo Atlanta, which now has more than 1,400 animals and is one of the country’s 10 oldest zoos in continuous operation, is open from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday-Friday and from 9:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m. on the weekends.

For more information, including ticket prices, go to zooatlanta.org or call 404-624-9453 (WILD).