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Coronavirus Victims: Maryland Zookeeper Mary J. Wilson

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The number of people killed by the coronavirus continues to climb in the U.S., and we're going to remember one of those people now. Mary J. Wilson was the first African American senior zookeeper at the Maryland Zoo in Baltimore. She died in July after contracting COVID-19.

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Sharon David says she was lucky to have Wilson as her boss early on in her career. She says Wilson was not always gentle with her lessons about how to handle and feed large animals like primates and elephants.

SHARON DAVID: And then she would come out, and she said, did you watch me really good, Sharon? And I would say, yes, ma'am. I was looking right at you. She'd say, you sure? Yeah. Then she'd say, well, go in and get it.

SHAPIRO: Go in and get it because that's exactly how Wilson would have done it.

DAVID: She was a warrior. She was like Xena the warrior. Yes, she was.

SHAPIRO: Sharron Jackson agrees.

SHARRON JACKSON: This woman had no fear.

VANEK SMITH: Jackson is Mary Wilson's daughter. She remembers hearing one story about her mother that involved a very large bear.

JACKSON: A Kodiak - that's a huge animal.

SHAPIRO: Mike McClure, a curator at the Maryland Zoo, also remembers the incident.

MIKE MCCLURE: Keeper left the door open. Kodiak bear, big male, walked right through the door, and he was in the service area.

SHAPIRO: Of course, panic ensued. But then...

MCCLURE: Mary went into the kitchen. She grabbed a handful of apples. Mary just stood out there and was like, Junior, and just called him. Damn if the bear didn't turn around, walk back through the door it just discovered and went right back into the habitat. And she's sitting there, throwing him apples. Good boy, Junior. Good boy.

VANEK SMITH: When McClure started at the Maryland Zoo, Wilson was his supervisor, too.

MCCLURE: When I got into the zoo field, it was very male-dominated. Mary just absolutely blew me away. Like, she was the best supervisor I'd ever seen, most skilled animal handler and trainer I'd ever seen. In my mind, she really just flipped all the gender roles on their head.

VANEK SMITH: Those closest to her say she was committed to her profession until the very end. Jackson recalls the last night she spoke to her mom. Suffering from coronavirus symptoms, Wilson was unresponsive.

JACKSON: Can you open your eyes? Can you smile? Can you do anything? Can you nod?

SHAPIRO: Nothing - but then a memory popped into Jackson's head about the time her mother called her in the middle of the night asking if she wanted to go to the zoo to tend to an elephant named Joe.

JACKSON: Two o'clock in the morning - here we go, running to the zoo in the middle of the night. And she walks in, and she says, shake it up, Joe. And he bobbled his head.

VANEK SMITH: And so she shared that memory with her mom.

JACKSON: Mom, remember that time where we went to the zoo in the middle of the night and you told Joe to shake them up? Can you shake it up for me? And she bobbled her head like the elephant. That was my closure.

SHAPIRO: Mary J. Wilson, the first African American senior zookeeper at the Maryland Zoo, was 83 years old.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOUX'S "CHASING STARS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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