Wildlife World Zoo's founder turned childhood dream into reality

"Thoughts become things": that saying just may be the case with the owner of one of the largest private zoos in the nation.

Mickey Ollson opened Wildlife World Zoo nearly 35 years ago, but he was only a child when he subconsciously made plans for it.

The time was nearly 66 years ago. Ollson was a little boy then, just about 10 years old, and he was just realizing a dream.

"I had chicken pox or the mumps or the measles or something, so I couldn't go to school for a couple weeks," said Ollson. "I was really bored."

Ollson, now 76, remembers that fateful afternoon vividly. To pass the time, he drew a map.

"It's about the size of my grandad's five acres," recounted Ollson. 

That map became the key to Ollson's entire future.

"I thought about it, this is where I am going to have animals someday," said Ollson. "We had some parakeets. My dad had some parakeets and a lily pond with some koi fish. My grandad raised very nice german shepherds, and had canaries and a few chickens."

Ollson said it all really started with a couple of ducks, a gift from his grandfather who lived next door when he was growing up, the very land he planned to build Wildlife World Zoo on. 

"In some ways, it resembles what we have done here at the zoo, just on a grand scale," said Ollson. 

Ollson graduated from ASU and became a teacher, but his love for animals grew.

"I was raising exotic birds for other zoos and other collections, and in the early 80's, with the growth of the west side of Phoenix here in the whole West Valley, we decided to go ahead and open a zoo here," said Ollson.

Wildlife World Zoo and Aquarium opened to the public in 1984, a few years before Kristy Morcom was born. The petting zoo is still her favorite exhibit. It's still a place she escapes to, only this time, it is to take a break from her beloved job as the Director of Public Relations for the Zoo.

"It's amazing to get to come to work everyday, and be surrounded with people who have that same passion that you do for animals, wildlife, and we're a family here. There's employees that grew up with the zoo," said Morcom.

Morcom started as a volunteer, so did Senior Keeper for Hoof and Stalk, Marilyn Badineau. She started14 years ago 

"They are something I never thought that I would have the opportunity to get this close, or get to know them like I do, but everyday -- yeah, something different," said Badineau.

Emily Seabo, meanwhile, was eventually hired on as the Director of Sea Lions, and runs the new marine mammal program at Wildlife.

"When I left Hawaii, I thought that was it, I had done marine mammal training," said Seabo. "It was a dream of mine. Most people don't get to live their dreams once, and I got to do mine, and when this opportunity came, I'm thankful everyday I get to play with sea lions and do positive reinforcement training."

"Then, I remember there were a couple spots here where it was going to be a pond," said Ollson. "I must not have finished the legend. I never got the pond in."

The Zoo had been open a few years when Ollson was reminded of the map. The original was laminated by his mother, and it was found in her belongings, after she passed away.

Now, Ollson is on site everyday, checking in with all the keepers and all the animals, proud of all that's been accomplished. Never in his wildest dreams did Ollson think his childhood vision would become reality, and that the tiny little map would grow into a 100 acre zoo that houses 6,000 animals.

"They're above you, and it's really interesting to see people come up," said John Wallick, Manager of Exhibit Design. "They are looking in the cage, and all of the sudden, they realize they are above them and yeah its pretty amazing."

Wallick started working at the zoo as a sophmore in high school. For 34+ years, Ollson has been a boss, a friend, and an inspiration.

"To me, he is a testament to what somebody can accomplish if they dedicate their entire life to something, and his entire life is dedicated to the zoo," said Wallick.

If he knew then what he knows now, Ollson still wouldn't change a thing, because, he says, it all came together just like it's supposed to. Ollson said he puts every dollar right back into Wildlife World Zoo.

Ollson has about 16 acres of undeveloped land, and plans to open even more exhibits in the near future.

Wildlife World Zoo is open seven days a week, every day of the year.

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