A Zoo Growing Up and the Arrival of Willie B.

Willie B. being fed

By the 1950s, a sweeping global trend had biologists and zoo directors questioning traditional hard, linear animal cages in favor of naturalistic enclosures. The period from 1951 to 1967 was one of the Zoo’s greatest times of construction and renovation. Still used for exhibits today, the World of Reptiles remains as an example from the Zoo’s first big facelift. This decade also marked the arrival of one of the institution’s most beloved animals, an infant gorilla that joined the collection in 1961. Named for Atlanta Mayor William B. Hartsfield, he would be known in perpetuity as “Willie B.”

Despite a decade of progress and ingenuity, it would not be long before many of the Zoo’s facilities became outdated. In 1970, a group of influential citizens united with the purpose of driving fundraising, recruiting volunteers and raising awareness of the Zoo’s education, conservation and research efforts. This contingent became the Atlanta Zoological Society (AZS), with Dr. Geoffrey Bourne as founding president and Dr. Duane Rumbaugh and Richard Reynolds, III, as founding vice presidents. One early undertaking of AZS was to raise the suggestion that the Zoo, which had always been a free venue, should begin charging admission. The organization grew rapidly in strength and membership through the 1970s, but a number of disappointments stymied AZS efforts to secure funding for the lengthening list of improvements needed at the Zoo. By the 1980s, a critical situation was rising to a head.

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