In 2000, the American Association of Zoo Keepers performed a workplace study, finding that 75% of zookeepers nationwide are now female. Zoos now frequently employ women with graduate degrees in science as curators, nutritionists, researchers, and veterinarians. The American Veterinary Medical Association estimates that each year, 70% of graduates from veterinary schools are female. One might wonder how things got started, particularly for Black women, given the new advancements for women in the workplace.
The first African-American senior zookeeper at what is now the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore, Mary J. Wilson, specialized in taking care of gorillas and elephants. According to reports, Wilson worked with mammals from the start of her career and specialized in gorillas, cats, cheetahs, tigers, monkeys, and elephants, whereas the majority of women zookeepers at the time were tasked with caring for smaller animals.
Her favorite animals were elephants and gorillas. She had a height of six feet. She reportedly had the ability to direct her elephant charges. She had a reputation for bringing home young animals to care for. By the time Wilson was 21 years old, she had earned her high school diploma from Paul Laurence Dunbar and was employed at the zoo. When she started, she had no formal training. She worked there for 38 years, retiring in 1999. Her only initial qualifications, The Sun reported in 1996, were “a willingness to work hard and a love of animals.”
A young gorilla named Sylvia moved into the Baltimore Zoo from the Congo in the middle of the 1960s. The issue of where zoos should get their animals ethically was less important back then. At a very young age, Sylvia was taken away from her mother to make her debut. She quickly felt lost in her new surroundings. Wilson had to take care of her.
“We had to care for her just like we’d care for a human baby,” Wilson told The Sun in 1996. “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.”
Sharron Wilson Jackson developed a love of animals thanks to her mother and at the Omaha City Zoo she became the first Black female senior zookeeper. She thinks her experience working with animals through her mother is why she was hired at the zoo. Jackson was in charge of five keepers and more than 100 animals. Hyenas, big and small cats, alligators, monkeys, bats, bunnies, goats, and snakes are a few of the species she has worked with.
Jackson’s mother, Wilson, who worked as a senior animal keeper at the Baltimore Zoo from 1961 to 1999, served as her greatest career mentor. Jackson’s favorite animals — snakes — were among those Wilson frequently brought home. At a young age, Jackson would also go see the animals at the zoo and work there as an “unauthorized volunteer.”
Wilson left the zoo in 1999, and dementia eventually took hold of the tenacious woman. Her daughter said she died of the coronavirus in Randallstown, Md., on May 25, 2020. Wilson, daughter of Willie Wilson and Mary Henry, was born and raised in West Baltimore. She graduated from Paul Laurence Dunbar High School before her work at the zoo.
“Mary brought love, skill and passion to her work with the animals at the zoo. She was also like everyone’s mentor. She was a mother, friend and supervisor. What a great woman,” Carol M. Barth, of Parkville, who worked with Wilson from 1973 to 1991, told The Baltimore Sun.