Jun 2, 2022 - News

Remember when... the Atlanta zoo was a "national disgrace?"

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Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

Welcome to Remember When, a semi-regular Throwback Thursday feature where we revisit the largely forgotten strange, uplifting, pivotal or baffling moments from Atlanta’s history.

In the early 1980s, Atlanta’s zoo was known as one of the country’s worst — a depressing and woefully managed city-owned-and-operated mess.

Animals were confined to cages with little to no shade and lacked access to open-air environments.

  • Others disappeared. In 1984, employees said surplus bunnies and other animals from the children’s exhibit were sold to workers to make stews and sausages or to keep as pets, per the Washington Post.
  • Willie B., the beloved 450-pound gorilla named after former Mayor William B. Hartsfield, had not stepped outdoors since 1961, the New York Times reported at the time.
  • Twinkles, an old elephant, died after being sold to a traveling circus. So did Kodiak bears who were loaned out to a roadside zoo in North Carolina.

Conditions were so dire the national accrediting body suspended the zoo's membership and the U.S. department of agriculture launched an investigation.

Breaking point: In the summer of 1984, after the death of Twinkles and amid calls for reform by city, county and civic leaders, a Fulton grand jury (!) recommended a city-county authority take over the zoo.

  • Terry Maple, a primatologist at Georgia Tech who called the zoo a "national disgrace," was appointed the zoo's executive director.
  • Maple rallied investments and donations to upgrade the facility, hired the zoo’s first full-time veterinarian and was largely credited with turning things around.

Today, a private nonprofit manages the zoo. Now named Zoo Atlanta, the facility has grown in size, diversity of animals, and is one of Atlanta’s biggest draws.


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