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Founder of metro Phoenix Wildlife World Zoo dies at 80

Zoo officials said in a news release that founder and owner Mickey Ollson died Sunday after a short battle with cancer.

LITCHFIELD PARK, Ariz. — The founder of the Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park in Litchfield Park has died.

Zoo officials said in a news release that founder and owner Mickey Ollson died Sunday after a short battle with cancer.

Ollson attended Arizona State University and worked as a teacher in the Alhambra School district through the early 1980s. That’s when Ollson retired from teaching to pursue his true passion: Wildlife Conservation.

The beginnings of a zoo

The year was 1984 and Mickey Ollson spent the last of his money on land and advertising for his new Wildlife World Zoo in the remote West Valley town of Litchfield Park.

“From a small child, he's had a true passion for wildlife,” Kristy Hayden explained, the communications director for the zoo. “He used to ask his grandparents when they would say, ‘What do you want for your birthday?’ He'd say, ‘anything alive’ and his grandparents got him a pair of ducks.”

Those ducks would one day lead him to open one of the largest wildlife conservation parks in the country.

“He took a huge risk,” Hayden said. “He took his retirement, dumped it into advertising for the zoo, so people would know to come out here. That passion has never left. He was here every single day, seven days a week all year long.”

RELATED: Wildlife World celebrates National Zookeepers Week by highlighting keepers, volunteers

A legacy of education

For 38 years millions have filed through the gates of Wildlife World Zoo, seeing and learning about exotic animals up close and personal. From flamingos to bison, from jaguars to his personal favorite: giraffes.

“Now, we have Arizona's largest exotic animal collection; over 6,000 animals, 600 different species, and millions of people have come through here,” Hayden said.

In December of 2021, Ollson was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Zoological Association of America for his conservation efforts.

“When he was reflecting back on that, he realized, looking back to his life, he wouldn't have changed a thing,” Hyden said. “Everything worked out the way that it was supposed to.”

RELATED: New species alert: Phoenix Zoo welcomes the first greater one-horned rhinoceros to the park

The legacy continues

As young and old continue to pass through the gates of Wildlife World Zoo to learn about wildlife and the conservation efforts around the globe, Mickey Ollson’s legacy will endure.

“I just think about all that he's done for me and everyone around me and the millions of people that have come through Wildlife World Zoo,” Hayden said. “He leaves behind a true legacy and a legacy that's going to live on.”

The Ollson family has asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to Save Giraffes Now, a conservation group working to save endangered giraffes.

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RELATED: Wildlife World celebrates National Zookeepers Week by highlighting keepers, volunteers

How big is Maricopa County?: 

Maricopa County is the United States’ 4th largest county in terms of population with 4,485,414 people, according to the 2020 Census. 

The county contains around 63% of Arizona’s population and is 9,224 square miles. That makes the county larger than seven U.S. states (Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, Hawaii, New Jersey, Massachusetts and New Hampshire). 

One of the largest park systems in the nation is also located in Maricopa County. The county has an estimated 120,000 acres of open space parks that includes hundreds of miles of trails, nature centers and campgrounds. 

The county’s seat is located in Phoenix, which is also the state capital and the census-designated 5th most populous city in the United States. 

The county was named after the Maricopa, or Piipaash, Native American Tribe.

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