My grandfather the zookeeper

March 4, 2007

My grandfather was the zookeeper for Grant Park Zoo ( now Zoo Atlanta ) from 1935-1973. My grandfather originally worked as zookeeper for Asa Candler Jr. Growing up was always an adventure for me. I played with lion and tiger cubs, baby monkeys, played with the elephants, even rode an elephant when I was 7. My grandfather, brother and father did elephant shows every Sunday afternoon. We’d also go on Wednesday afternoons after school and play until closing. My grandfather would get calls in the middle of the night sometimes because the elephants had gotten out of their pens, or one of the monkeys was out roaming the grounds. When I spent the night with my grandparents during the summer my grandfather would wake me up and take me with him to check on the animals……..it was so cool. My poor grandmother never knew what to expect when my grandfather came home. He could have a sick monkey, which my grandmother always kept a diaper on, or a parrot, sheep, raccoon, turkey, pony, cussing Mynah bird……yes, he learned it from my grandfather. In fact the Mynah bird became part of the family because of his language…….he was originally part of the “kiddie zoo”, need I say more?

Below: My grandfather

grandfather playing with lion Grant Park zoo ( now Zoo Atlanta )

My grandfather and uncle

grandfather and uncle petting elephant Grant Park zoo ( now Zoo Atlanta )

My grandfather playing with lion cubs

grandfather playing with lion cubs Grant Park zoo ( now Zoo Atlanta )

My grandfather feeding Willie B.

grandfather feeding willie b. Grant Park zoo (now Zoo Atlanta )

This is a little something I found online about Asa Candler Jr. From everything Ive heard and read he seemed to be quite a character.

Asa Candler, Jr., built an impressive home on 42 acres on Briarcliff, now the Alcohol and Drug Addiction Center. It included a golf course, two swimming pools (one open to the public for 25 a person), and a private zoo, which was home to six elephants (among them, one pair named Coca and Cola and another pair named Refreshing and Delicious), a Bengal tiger, four lions, a black leopard, a gorilla and numerous baboons.Some neighbors charged in a law suit that they “lived in fear” of the odiferous and hazardous collection. In a case that went to the Georgia Supreme Court, one woman on Briarcliff sued Candler and was awarded $25,000, after she opened her car door to find a baboon sitting in the driver’s seat, where upon the baboon filched her purse and in the struggle the woman fell and broke her leg!After a succession of hair-raising events, Candler gave most of the animals to the Grant Park Zoo.

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16 Responses to “My grandfather the zookeeper”

  1. Denise Says:

    THAT is cool.

  2. Lee Says:

    I’m glad you posted this!!!!

  3. Emsxiety Says:

    Hmm, Denise took what I was going to say. But it really is cool. Seriously.

  4. Syd Says:

    Now THERE is a story you don’t hear every day. Fascinating, J. Thanks.

    The new dress looks good on the blog, btw.

  5. Patti_Cake Says:

    I lurked on J’s blog yesterday and read about the Zoo. I was fascinated and love the old pics. Wow I can’t even imagine how cool it would be to be able to get up close n’ personal with all different kinds of animals!
    I was telling the MIL you get to see Loretta Lynn this week-end. I am ten kinds of jealous! 😉

  6. Arlene Says:

    Wow, that is awesome! And the pictures are great!!

  7. Trop Says:

    My daughter and I practically lived at San Diego’s Wild Animal Park. If I were ever to change careers, it would be to work there.

  8. Tom Says:

    I randomly came across your site while looking for pictures of Zoo Atlanta. Your pictures are simply amazing. I’m a zoo keeper, and I love hearing stories and seeing pictures of what it used to be like! I’d give anything to be able to go back in time for just a day.

  9. Melanie Says:

    I am so fascinated by what you wrote. My mother (now deceased for 7 years) wrote for the Atlanta Journal. I’m not sure exactly how she became friends with your grandfather, but apparently she had known him for years. Me and my 2 sisters and our Mom would go often to the zoo. This was probably around 1964 through about 1967 or 1968. He had a way with all of those animals that I will never ever forget. He would let us play with some of the animals too, and he’d take us around in the back of a little truck or tractor cart ( I can’t quite remember exactly what it was). We’d go in and help feed the sea lions and sometimes he’d get the lion and tiger cubs out. Somewhere I have some old pictures of this. I will not ever forget the times that Johnny took my older sister (who was probably 12 or 13 at the time) and climbed over the fence inside the lion house. He put his hand through the cage with a grown female tiger. He spoke so softly to her and petted her until she was completely calm. Then he had my sister put her hand through too and pet her. This was amazing because this was a wild animal. He’d make the bears wave to all the children and get the elephants to do anything he wanted them to. The last time I remember seeing him we we’re there one Saturday or Sunday. His favorite elephant was ill and wouldn’t stand up. He was so worried and didn’t have time to spend anytime with us. He was so concerned about that elephant. He was working and working with her. She passed away later. It was so sad. Johnny Dilbeck was a part of all of these animals family. No one would even believe it if they didn’t witness it. I could go on and on. I’d like to hear more from you. These were some of the best memories of my life as a child.

    • Corinne Says:

      Thank you so much for allowing me to relive those precious moments through your words. I was there and it was the best time of my life and always will be. Johnny was truly one of a kind. There could never be another.

  10. Miranda Says:

    I am a producer at WSB-TV Atlanta and stumbled across your blog doing research for a show that I am working on in conjunction with Zoo Atlanta. It is the last in a series of educational specials, and this one is focused the history of the zoo. I would love to learn more about your Grandfather’s history with both the Zoo and Asa Candler Jr. Thanks for posting such great pics, it would be so cool to be part of such a legacy.

  11. Corinne Says:

    Thank you so very much for the wonderful pictures. I was looking for a specific picture and happened to find myself here. Your Grandfather taught me a lot about the animals and a lot about people. Those were good days and although finances were slim the animals got the best we could give. There were no egos and no grandiosity. It was about the animals and your grandfather certainly knew the animals and he knew the people from every walk of life. You and I might have played with a lion cub one afternoon in the Feline Bldg. Little guy got a sponge and I had to wrestle it away from him. They are so possessive. Your grandfather lives on in the hearts and minds of everyone lucky enough to have known him.

  12. Ralph HARRISON Says:

    My father, Carl M. HARRISON, Sr., was a good friend of Johnny Dilbeck, the original zoo keeper for the Grant Park Zoo in Atlanta. Often dad would work late as a lineman for Georgia Power. After which he would sometimes go by the Zoo and check on his good friend, Johnny Dilbeck. Sometimes the Zoo would have too many veggies or fruit on hand and rather than have it spoil Johnny would give some apples, etc to Dad to carry home to his two boys, myself and big brother. The Depression was still lingering on and the surprise of fresh fruit was a great treat for us. We moved away in 1941 to East Point into a company house. Johnny bought our 5 acres and garage apartment in SE Atlanta. In 2001 and as late as 2001 I accidentally met his son, Johnny Jr., and found that the 5 acres were still in the family.

  13. Dennis Sweat Says:

    Dennis S.
    I was a neighbor of the Dilbecks on Woodson Street. I remember the kids, Johnny, Jimmy, George and Honey. I believe I was the same age as George. Would like to know where they all are…Which is your parent? Mr. Dilbeck would take us kids to the farmers market in his pickup truck to get veggies and fruit and take to the zoo and let us feed the animals…

  14. Ken Says:

    I lived on Napier St with the Dilbecks. Many stories to tell. Anyone got a name or address for George or Gail please let me know. Ken Corley


  15. Ken, What was your street number, and what years were you there. We were there from 1937 till 9/1941. We probably had a couple of cows in the pasture on the south side of Napier St. behind a couple of homes.
    I ran across Johnny DILBECK, Jr. in appx 2001. My Dad sold the 5 acres on Napier St. to Johnny DILBECK, Sr. In 2001 his son told me it was still in he family. You can contact me at my e mail that I will leave in required details.


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