Willie B

King Kong, the “love” story between a giant ape and beautiful heroine, stole the hearts of millions in 1977. The classic monster remake activated the imagination of kids like me making a trip to the zoo an exciting adventure. On Thanksgiving Day that very year, we filed into the ape house to see a gorilla with our own eyes. As the oldest of six cousins—I was 10—we entered the Atlanta Zoo’s ape house to visit the famous Willie B.

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Willie B arrived at the Atlanta Zoo in 1961 after being taken from his native Africa as a toddler. He now lived alone in a glass enclosure with only a tire swing, television, and human spectators to keep himself entertained. As we approached the cage, Willie B leaned against the wall. The powder blue tile and stained grout did little to brighten up his bleak living space.

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“Look at this,” my aunt hollered as she pointed to the blurb that described Silverback Gorillas. We listened with mild interest as she explained they “can grow to be 400 pounds.”

“How many pounds is King Kong?” my cousin asked and banged his chest with his fists. “Oh oh oh!”

“King Kong!” someone else chimed in.

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Within seconds, we children became apes, oh-ing and grunting, banging our chests and pretending to scratch our armpits. Willie B stared with mild amusement while we acted like a bunch of monkeys.

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My mom stepped in front of the glass to get a better look. Willie B’s eyes followed her. She then turned and walked to the blurb to read more about the animal. Willie B continued to watch Mom as she strolled to the other side of the enclosure.

“Hey Mom,” I laughed, “Willie B likes you!”

She looked at me and smiled, shaking her head and continued reading.

“Really, Teresa, he’s watching you,” my aunt replied.

Mom looked at the gorilla and they locked eyes. Willie B appeared to smile. Then she walked to the other side, remaining next to the glass. Willie B stood up and walked next to her. Laughing, she turned and sauntered back to where she started. Willie B did the same.

“Oh oh Doug,” my aunt teased, “Looks like Teresa has a new friend.”

My siblings, cousins, and I were mesmerized. “Do it again! Do it again!”

My mom turned and, once more, walked slowly the other way. Willie B followed. Then she turned and ran back. Willie B kept pace, making noises, then pausing to swing on the tire—as if he were showing off.

My dad, not to be out done, wondered over to my mom and put his arm around her shoulder.

Willie B did not like this. He became agitated, visibly angry.

“Give her a kiss,” someone shouted.

My dad turned and gave my mom a small peck on the lips. Willie B jumped up and down shouting angrily with oh’s and began beating his chest. The longer Dad stood next to Mom, the more upset Willie B became until he started banging the glass with his elbow.

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Mom left my dad and returned to the other side of the enclosure. Willie B did the same, never taking his eyes off Mom.

We watched and laughed for another ten minutes before we decided to move onto the next attraction. We joked and teased my mom that she could be Willie B’s girlfriend like King Kong and Dwan, the heroine he falls in love with.

The rest of the day was spent cajoling and reminiscing about the Silverback. But for Willie B, it wasn’t until 1988 that he was allowed to escape the confines of his cage and discover the joys of true love. The handsome silverback spent 27 years in horrid conditions before moving to an outdoor exhibit. And while he spent the next twelve years as the king of his manmade rainforest with three beautiful brides and five children, I will always believe that my mom was his first true love.

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