Mickey Ollson, owner and director of Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium and Safari Park, remembers collecting jokes out of Reader’s Digest and telling them aloud in a public speaking class he took in college in the early ’60s.
At the time, he never imagined he would open his own zoo in 1984 — let alone that it would be recognized by that same widely distributed magazine.
Reader’s Digest recently issued a list called “The Best Zoo in Every State in America,” and Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium and Safari Park was named the best zoo in Arizona.
Ollson said such recognition speaks to his staff’s hard work and dedication.
“It’s easy to have a vision and to want to do something. But if you’re really going to be successful, you have to have good people that help you,” he said. “I’ve had people that have put down their roots here, and they’ve really taken it upon themselves to make the zoo very best it can be.”
Thirty-five years ago, the zoo sat on 30 acres, displayed less than 100 species, was operated by a staff of six and had a picnic table with a sheet over it for furniture. Today, the zoo spans 150 acres, exhibits more than 600 different species and 6,000 animals and employs 115 people in the spring. It houses an Adventure Land with rides, boasts an interactive sea lion exhibit and features five restaurants and cafés: Dillon’s Restaurant, Skyride Cafe, Safari Grill, Congo Cooker and Zooberto’s.
The growth of the zoo, which has never received or used taxpayer funding, is attributed to its entrepreneurism, Ollson said.
“We’ve been very strong about investing back into the zoo. The profits from the zoo are put back into it to better things for the visitors; to better things for the animals; to better things for our employees; to enlarge the zoo; to build new exhibits and to increase the animal collection,” he said.
And that entrepreneurism made way for activities that are unique to the zoo — including the Giraffe Feeding Station and Lory Parrot Feeding, which Ollson said Wildlife World opened before any other zoo — and exhibits like the Baby Animal Nursery and Dragon World, which Reader’s Digest highlighted as must-see attractions.
Ollson said baby animals end up in the nursery because sometimes the mother does not take care of them, for a number of reasons, or simply because they’re better off being hand raised.
“We are really pleased with the fact that we’ve been able to raise multiple generations of some very rare animals by hand in our animal nursery,” he said.
And the zoo’s rare, endangered animals — like Arabian oryx from North Africa, and the albino alligators, which were down to 13 in the ’60s and less than 100, respectively — are bred on site through a species survival program made up of a consortium of zoos that control the animal gene pool.
“We’ve become very good at breeding animals. We’re no longer taking animals out of the wild. We are now producers of animals,” Ollson said.
Ollson, who has not only watched his zoo grow throughout the years but has witnessed cutting-edge advancements in the industry, said the genuine love for animals is the drive for all of it.
“In this business, nobody gets rich. You’re not working because it’s a good paycheck or a nice salary. You’re working because you love animals, and it’s what you’ve always wanted to do,” he said.
While being recognized by a national publication like Reader’s Digest is an absolute honor, Ollson said he values the compliments he receives from guests just as much.
“The compliments from people like us; those are just as important,” he said. “It verifies what my staff has been doing here and what we’ve done here for the last 35 years is appreciated, and that we’re doing some things right.”