First African-American senior zookeeper at Maryland Zoo dies

May 27, 2020 GMT

BALTIMORE (AP) — Mary J. Wilson, the first African-American senior zookeeper at the Maryland Zoo of Baltimore and who specialized in the care of gorillas and elephants, has died of coronavirus. She was 83.

Mike McClure, the zoo’s general curator, confirmed Wednesday that McClure died last Thursday at Northwest Hospital in Randallstown of COVID-19. He was an entry-level zookeeper when he encountered Wilson.

“She was extremely passionate about everything she did, and so committed,” McClure said. “She was a cool lady.”

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The Baltimore Sun reported that Arthur R. Watson, who headed the zoo from 1948 to 1980, hired Wilson, whose only qualifications, were 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,” The Sun reported in 1996.

Wilson went right into caring for mammals. She spent her entire career working with gorillas, cats and elephants in the Mammal House.

“It’s like baby-sitting, only more so, and you can get just as attached to your work,” Wilson told the old Sunday Sun Magazine in 1966.

“She started working at the zoo in 1961,” said her daughter, Sharron Wilson Jackson, a retired Platinum Hill Records executive and former owner of Sound Sages Entertainment. “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.”

One time, according to the Sun, zoo officials had to ask Wilson to stop scuffling with a 2-year-old jaguar because the animal had grown large enough to be considered dangerous.

“We got around some intelligent, large and some dangerous animals. It’s part of our job,” McClure said. “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.”

Wilson, who retired from the zoo in 1999, is survived by a grandson and a great-granddaughter. Plans for a celebration-of-life gathering at Druid Hill Park were incomplete because of the pandemic.