Wildlife World Zoo founder and owner Mickey Ollson, who died Jan. 9 at age 80 of leukemia, was a dreamer. The lifelong West Valley resident was so regarded for his love of animals that he was recently honored with a national award.
“His vision and hard work entertained and educated millions of people through the Wildlife World Zoo,” said Kristy Hayden, Wildlife World Zoo media director.
“He was born and raised in the West Valley, and he leaves an indelible mark there for future generations. He gave back to his community. He was an inspiration to his family and everyone who knew him.”
Prior to his death, Ollson was awarded the Zoological Association of America’s Lifetime Achievement Award. This award is the highest ZAA honor for professional excellence and contributions to the zoo industry. The award recognizes the improvements made to the craft of zookeeping and zoo management by an individual.
After winning the award late last year, Ollson reflected on his career and said he wouldn’t change a thing because it all came together just as he envisioned as a little boy.
As a child, Ollson dreamt of opening his own zoo, even drawing a map of the future facility during his recovery from chicken pox. The plan began with a couple of ducks, a gift from his grandfather who lived next door to him when he was growing up, on land where he planned to someday build his Wildlife World Zoo.
Before opening the zoo, Ollson graduated from North High in 1959 and earned his bachelor’s degree in business and a minor in journalism from ASU in 1963. He returned for his master’s in marketing with minors in advertising and public relations. During college, he raised extra money by raising and selling guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits to local pet stores.
Upon graduation, he was a student teacher at Alhambra High School, followed by a role as seventh grade social studies educator at Alhambra Elementary School. All the while his love of animals never waned.
“I was raising exotic birds for other zoos and other collections, and in the early ’80s, with the growth of the West Valley, we decided to go ahead and open a zoo here,” Ollson once said.
In his mid-40s, Ollson retired from teaching and fulfilled his dream of opening a zoo.
For nearly four decades, Ollson was on-site at the Litchfield Park zoo daily, checking in with all the keepers and the animals, building and adding pieces and exhibits annually, proud of his team’s accomplishments.
His childhood vision grew into Arizona’s largest exotic animal collection, a 100-acre zoo that houses 6,000 animals. Millions visited his park.
During his career, Ollson often set precedents in the zoological community. Wildlife World Zoo was the first zoo to have a public exotic bird feeding, and overhead jaguar viewing.
Ollson leaves behind his wife, Connie, who will run the zoo; their children Micalin, Louis, Kenny and DeShawn; eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
Memorial services are pending. The family asks in lieu of flowers to donate to Save Giraffes Now. Giraffes were one of Ollson’s favorite animals.