Tribute For Mary J. Wilson, Barrier-Smashing Zookeeper, Dies at 83

This obituary is part of a series about people who have died in the coronavirus pandemic. Read about others here.

There was the time, about 25 years ago, when a bat flew into Mary J. Wilson’s home in Baltimore. Picture the scene: pandemonium. Ms. Wilson calmly raised an arm, snatched the bat in mid-flight and tossed it back outside.

“I never saw anything like it,” her grandson, Felipe Herrera, said.

Ms. Wilson was a sports fan, a trash talker, a fearless woman who stood 6 feet tall. But mostly, Ms. Wilson, the first African-American senior zookeeper at what is now the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, had a way with animals, especially loose ones.

“She was a no-nonsense lady,” said her daughter, Sharron Wilson Jackson, who became the first African-American female senior zookeeper at the Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, in Omaha, before switching to the music business. “If something got out, she’d go there and coach an animal back into its cage. She did it with an elephant that got out. She just started cussing. The elephant was charging towards my mother. My mother just stood there and said, ‘You better come over here.’ And the elephant did.”

That was her mother, Ms. Jackson said. “She could catch monkeys with a net in midair. She just didn’t show any fear.”

Ms. Wilson died of the new coronavirus in Randallstown, Md., on May 25, her daughter said. She was 83. She is also survived by her grandson.

Mary Jeannette Wilson was born on Jan. 2, 1937, in West Baltimore, the middle child of Willie Wilson and Mary Henry. She attended Paul Laurence Dunbar High School, then made her career with just a high school degree and a passion for big animals, especially primates. Colleagues and her daughter said she had never talked about breaking a racial barrier — she just loved her work.

There were other stories about her. The time Bianca the jaguar got out. The time Spunky the chimpanzee got loose and bit a worker’s ear nearly off. Ms. Wilson bullied both animals back into their cages, Bianca with a hose that Ms. Wilson had picked up while running toward the cat, Spunky just by facing him down until he whimpered, then taking his hand and walking him back where he belonged.

One exception: Put a mouse near her, said her fellow zookeeper Gwen Mullen, and “you would see this very tall woman standing on a chair.”

Ms. Wilson often cared for zoo babies at home at night, her daughter remembered — a baboon, a gorilla, all kinds of monkeys, even snakes. It was a different era for zoos.

“I would take them to the store with a blanket,” Ms. Jackson said. “I scared people.”

Dementia crept into Ms. Wilson’s final year, and then the coronavirus. On a video call the day before her mother died, Ms. Jackson said, she tried everything to get a response, to no avail. Then she remembered something Ms. Wilson had once said to an ailing bull elephant: “Shake it up, Joe.” And Joe had shaken his massive head.

“I thought about that time,” Ms. Jackson said. “I said, ‘Can you shake it up like Joe?’ And she shook her head like the elephant did. I lost it.”

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