Keeper has big love for big animals Caring: In 35 years at the Baltimore Zoo, Mary Wilson has developed a bond with many of the mammals.

July 14, 1996|By John Rivera | John Rivera,SUN STAFF

Around the Baltimore Zoo, Mary Wilson is considered an authority on how to treat a mammal.

When she walked into the zoo 35 years ago yesterday to start her first day of work as an animal keeper, Wilson's 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. But her years of accumulated wisdom have earned the respect and affection of her co-workers, both long-timers and newcomers, many of whom have been under her tutelage.

"She's taught me how to care, how each animal gets special attention. Each animal is different," said Brian Altadonna, a 22-year-old keeper who has worked under Wilson's guidance for three years.

"She came in a different time," said Sandy Kempske, the zoo's curator of mammals. "She learned in the field, and I think that's what makes her special and what makes the experience that she passes along to others so special.

"Mary has been in the business about twice as long as I have. She's taught me a great deal, and she's a great role model."

Wilson, 59, has always worked with mammals, the large animals in the zoo. That also sets her apart, Kempske said.

"You'll find that most women in this field who started when she did, they started out with birds or nursery-type animals," Kempske said. "Mary has been with large animals her whole career."

Henry Bell Sr., an elephant keeper who started at the zoo a year after Wilson did, praised her ability to relate to animals.

L "You get a sixth sense about them," he said. "She's got it."

In the mid-1960s, a baby gorilla named Sylvia, less than a year old, arrived at the zoo after a public campaign to purchase her, which included donations of S&H Green Stamps. A year later, the zoo acquired a male gorilla named Hercules.

The current practice of animal husbandry discourages keepers from getting too close to the animals they care for. The goal is to avoid imprinting, in which the animals identify more with their human keepers than with their own species.

But things were different then, and Sylvia, a baby gorilla without her mother, took an instant liking to Wilson, who was assigned to care for her. The feeling was mutual. "Sylvia was like a baby to me," Wilson said. "She was this cute little reddish-colored gorilla.

"We had to care for her just like we'd care for a human baby. The first thing when I came in the morning, I used to give her a bath. Then I'd feed her breakfast. I'd cook three-minute eggs for her. She just became like my little daughter."

Wilson and another keeper would take Sylvia out of her cage regularly for walks in the garden behind the Mammal House, and she would grab Wilson's pants leg as they strolled. The keepers would sit in the grass and watch her play, running from one to the other.

Over the years, Sylvia grew and Wilson could no longer hold her. Besides, Hercules, who was even bigger, wanted the same treatment, and Wilson faced the possibility of getting hurt. By 1981, it was apparent that the Baltimore Zoo did not have space for the gorillas.

"We just didn't have the right facilities. The cages were too small," Wilson said.

Both gorillas were sent to the National Zoo in Washington. Wilson wept when Sylvia left. "It was awful," she said.

Wilson spent a week with Sylvia and Hercules while they got used to their new surroundings, and for months afterward, she visited every week.

"Every Monday I went over there," she said. "On my day off, I would go to the National Zoo and spend the day with them. Then I sort of weaned myself off."

In 1986, Sylvia was moved to the Columbus Zoo in Columbus, Ohio, which has a highly regarded gorilla-breeding program.

Wilson accompanied her on her move and visited her again three years ago.

Hercules has since been moved to a zoo in Dallas.

Sylvia has become a surrogate mother to a baby gorilla whose mother had rejected her. "Sylvia took on the role of being a mother, even though she had never given birth," Wilson said.

The keepers at the Columbus Zoo said it might have been Wilson's influence on Sylvia that led the gorilla to take on the maternal role.

"They said it was because of how I raised her that she was so good with that youngster," Wilson said.

Wilson's co-workers said they, too, have benefited from Wilson's maternal instinct.

"She'll take you under her wing. Being there 35 years, she knows a lot, and she always knows the answer to everything," Altadonna said. "She's like a mother to everybody at work."

Pub Date: 7/14/96

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