Dr. Terry Maple left Zoo Atlanta 20 years ago, but his fondness for its most famous resident, a western lowland gorilla named Willie B., never went away.

Maple, now director emeritus of the zoo, has written a new book “Atlanta’s Iconic Ape: The Life of Willie B., which is out now in hardback, paperback, and eBook from Palmetto Publishing.

“I should have written this book years ago,” Maple said. “I kept meticulous records and I’d known Willie B. since 1975 when I first arrived in Atlanta.”

Atlantans of a certain age will recall that Zoo Atlanta was in a dismal state in the 1970s and 80s before Maple took over as director in 1984. Maple said the city had decided to spend money on bringing the Braves to Atlanta rather than helping the struggling zoo, so it fell into decline.”

“The zoo was depressing and an embarrassment to the city. It was named one of the worst zoos in America. No one with any sense would have taken the job as director, but I did. I felt it was my duty after then-Mayor Andrew Young asked me to take the job. I had a friend call from New York and ask, ‘Why are you doing this? You’re going to ruin your career.’”

But Maple believed Zoo Atlanta had promise, and his first mission was to free Willie B from the concrete bunker he lived in with a tire swing and television to keep him company. Visitors would gawk and shout at him through thick glass, and Willie B. often looked depressed. 

Willie B., named after former Mayor William B. Hartsfield, had been ripped from his mother’s arms in Africa in 1961 and brought to the zoo, where he lived in isolation for 29 years.

Maple, who had grown up in San Diego and frequented its world-famous zoo, had promise. He envisioned a large outdoor habitat where Willie B. and other gorillas could live naturally rather than in confinement. 

“I knew what could turn the zoo around if we rebuilt around science,” Maple recalled. “We needed to get the top primatologist on board, and we had those right here in Atlanta at Emory University’s Yerkes Primate Center.”

The city and community rallied to help the zoo and then the Ford Motor Company stepped forward with the first $100,000 check to make the gorilla habitat possible. The automaker still gives money every year for the upkeep of the Ford African Rain Forest.

When the habitat opened in 1988, Maple and the zoo staff were uncertain how Willie. B. would adapt to being outside and interacting with other gorillas – including females.
“I had hope for him,” Maple said. “I was afraid the girls would beat him up, but they liked him a lot.”

Willie B. would go on to father five offspring: Kudzoo, Olympia, Sukari, Willie B., Jr., and Lulu.

Willie B. would succumb to heart disease in 2000, and although Maple had already departed the zoo to teach at Georgia Tech, he was kept informed of the gorilla’s condition and final moments. “It was very comforting to know that he died peacefully,” Maple said.

Maple said Willie B. remains an important figure for Zoo Atlanta.

“There’s never been another ape like him. His fame had to do with his ow resilience. His story mirrors the city’s resilience,” Maple said.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.