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Mary J Wilson: First black senior zookeeper at Maryland Zoo

The no-nonsense zookeeper had a way with the biggest animals, including gorillas and elephants – and only feared the smallest mouse

Harriet Marsden
Thursday 09 July 2020 13:37
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Wilson with juvenile gorillas at Maryland Zoo
Wilson with juvenile gorillas at Maryland Zoo

When a bat flew into her home in Baltimore, Mary J Wilson didn’t panic. Instead, her grandson Felipe Herrera remembered, she calmly caught the bat out of mid-air and threw it straight back out the window. “I never saw anything like it,” he said.

But Wilson had always had a way with animals. Born 2 January 1937, the middle child of Willie Wilson and Mary Henry, Mary Jeanette was to embark on a career with exotic animals, armed with nothing but a high-school diploma.

When she was first hired at what is now the Maryland Zoo in 1961, Arthur R Watson (who ran the zoo from 1948 to 1980), said her only qualifications were a “willingness to work hard and a love of animals”. Her passion would drive her to become the first black senior zookeeper at the zoo, specialising in the care of gorillas, big cats and elephants at the Mammal House.

The zoo’s general curator, Mike McClure, said: “We got around some intelligent, large and some dangerous animals. It’s part of our job. And you just always felt safe when you were working with Mary. She wasn’t afraid of what she was doing, and she just had a confidence about her and understanding of these animals that made you feel like everything’s going to be OK.” He remembered her as “extremely passionate about everything she did and so committed. She was a cool lady.”

Her daughter Sharron Wilson Jackson, a retired music executive, said that her mother could “catch monkeys with a net in midair”. “She didn’t show any fear … She was an animal lover and had always loved them, and her love of them rubbed off on me.”

(Before entering the music business, Jackson followed in her mother’s footsteps and became the first black female senior zookeeper at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium in Omaha.)

Fearlessness was also, at times, an issue. Zoo officials would have to ask her to stop roughhousing with a two-year-old jaguar because he was large enough to pose a threat. Coworkers remember her managing to return an escaped jaguar and a violent chimpanzee to their cages by sheer force of will. But only a mouse, said her fellow zookeeper Gwen Mullen, could put her in a spin. “You would see this very tall woman standing on a chair,” she told The New York Times.

Wilson had a softer side too, caring for baby animals at home at night and bringing them to the shops with her wrapped in a blanket. “It’s like babysitting,” she told the Sunday Sun Magazine in 1966, “only more so, and you can get just as attached to your work.”

Wilson retired from the zoo in 1999, and dementia would later sink its claws into the formidable woman. The day before she died of coronavirus, her daughter was trying to communicate with her on a video call. Wilson could not respond, until her daughter asked her to remember an elephant, Joe, shaking his head on her command. “I said, ‘Can you shake it up like Joe?’ And she shook her head like the elephant did. I lost it.”

In the Maryland Zoo, there are still two otters named after her: Mary and Wilson.

Mary Jeanette Wilson, senior zookeeper, born 2 January 1937, died 25 May 2020

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