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Take a walk on the wild side in Litchfield Park

LITCHFIELD PARK, AZ (Arizona Highways TV) – With more than 6,000 animals from over 600 species, Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park has the most extensive exotic animal collection in Arizona. From the exotic to the endangered, the feathered to the furry, and the shy to the sly, Wildlife World Zoo Aquarium & Safari Park in Litchfield Park has one of the top diverse collections in the country, and being that it’s privately owned, it’s also one of the most successful.

Mickey Ollson founded the zoo in 1984 after he retired from teaching, but it has grown considerably in the years since. Ollson’s pet project began taking flight long before the zoo broke ground. He was raising exotic birds for other zoos. The Arizona native bought the land in the ‘70s to raise more birds and then started trading them for other animals. Wildlife World Zoo was born.

“We have animals from all over the world that most people otherwise would not get the opportunity to see,” Kristy Hayden explained. “It’s one thing when you see a giraffe on tv. It’s another thing when you can actually feed them, and their giant 18-inch tongue is wrapped around your hand. And you can smell them, and you get slobbered by them.”

You can also hand-feed parrots, deer, goats, and sea lions.

“Our lory parrot feeding is something you want to check out,” Hayden said. “We were the first park in the world to have a feeding of its kind. You go in -- it’s free to everyone -- it’s only a 15-minute feeding. We give you apples, you hold the apples, and you have lory parrots all over you! And they’re nectar feeders, which means they have a fast digestive system. That’s why we only have it 15 minutes. Because what goes in comes out 15 minutes later.”

Lory parrot feeding
Lory parrot feeding(Arizona Highways TV)

“We really pride ourselves on making the park as interactive as possible because we believe when you have that one-on-one interaction with wildlife, that’s when you’re truly inspired to want to conserve and protect these animals,” Hayden continued.

Protecting and preserving animals for future generations is a primary mission for any zoo.

Saving the white rhino

"We built a state-of-the-art rhino barn and established an exhibit in the hopes that one day...
"We built a state-of-the-art rhino barn and established an exhibit in the hopes that one day we'll have a successful rhino breeding program."(Arizona Highways TV)

“One of our most notable species we have here at Wildlife World is our white rhinos,” Hayden said. “Now, rhinos have a very uncertain future out in the wild, and this was many years in the makings. We had to work with Africa, and we imported three female white rhinos here to Arizona.”

Before they were brought here, those rhinos had to be protected by armed guards -- 24 hours a day -- for months. That’s because they’re being poached at an alarming rate for their horns, thought to be an aphrodisiac in some Asian cultures.

“We built a state-of-the-art rhino barn and established an exhibit in the hopes that one day we’ll have a successful rhino breeding program,” Hayden explained.

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Learning while having fun

Education is another mission of Wildlife World. The staff hosts wildlife encounters, a sort of show-and-tell, every day.

“We have a lot of cute and cuddly animals here, but we also have a lot of apex predators, like our jaguars, our saltwater croc,” Hayden said.

Dragon World is great for all the reptile lovers out there,” she continued. “Now we have reptiles throughout the park, but Dragon World has our largest reptiles.”

Dragon World
Dragon World(Arizona Highways TV)

There is also a full aquarium with more than 80 exhibits. “You can literally spend the whole afternoon over there, going through the exhibits in our four aquarium buildings, with fish from all over the world.” The aquarium is where you’ll find the sea lions. They are always a visitor favorite and star in shows throughout the day.

The rides

“As you walk through the park, you’re immersed in wildlife, not only on foot but when you’re on our rides,” Hayden said. “Our sky ride is one of my favorites because you go over a big chunk of the park, and you see everything from a bird’s-eye view. And when you’re on our zip line, you are so high you get views of the entire West Valley. You can even see the stadium, which is really neat. It’s great for all those thrill-seekers out there.”

Ollson died in January 2022, but not before seeing his passion for wild things grow from 10 to more than 100 developed acres.

“We are our own little oasis out here in the West Valley,” Hayden said.

Meet Dale, the Asian small-clawed otter, and Tank, the giant hairy armadillo

Baby animals! See the newest additions to the Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park

The nursery at Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park is a favorite for staff and visitors alike. Who doesn’t love baby animals?

“What a lot of people don’t realize is how important this building is and how it helps ensure the survival of so many of the animals we raise inside here,” Hayden said.

She showed off the adorable baby warthogs and explained why the species is often misunderstood.

“When people think of warthogs, they don’t give them the credit they really deserve,” she said. “They think they’re smelly and they’re not that smart, and actually people are completely wrong. Warthogs are extremely intelligent. If anyone’s ever owned a pig or worked with a pig, they know that firsthand. Warthogs are no different, and they’re actually fairly clean. They prefer their restroom far away from where their place where they eat, which not all animals can say that, so very cool indeed.”

Another interesting thing is that they can survive in places with little or no water for several months of the year. Arizona is a perfect place for them because it mimics their natural habitat in Africa.

Baby big cats

Everybody loves the big cats – tigers, lions, and jaguars.

"By hand-raising them, we can better ensure their survival, and people can see the...
"By hand-raising them, we can better ensure their survival, and people can see the around-the-clock care that these jaguars are getting."(Arizona Highways TV)

“Jaguars are the third-largest cats in the world,” Hayden said. Jaguars can get a couple hundred pounds. You’re going to find them down in Central and South America, Mexico. And they’re very special to all of us here in Arizona because this is their historical range. At one time, jaguars roamed the lands of Arizona, especially down by the border near Tucson and the different areas and the mountain ranges down there. But, sadly, they have been almost completely eliminated. There are only sporadic sightings of them every couple of years.”

“Jaguars are endangered,” she continued. “That’s due to poaching, because they have that gorgeous skin and fur, and also due to habitat loss and habitat fragmentation. So, it’s a really big deal that we have a successful jaguar breeding program. That’s why we have two little jaguar cubs in here right now. By hand-raising them, we can better ensure their survival, and people can see the around-the-clock care that these jaguars are getting.”

Hayden moved on to one of her favorite animals at Wildlife World – the black-backed jackals.

“They’re so cool,” she said. “They’re actually Africa’s version of the coyote. They look so similar that when people come through, they think that they’re coyotes.”

Baby black-backed jackals
Baby black-backed jackals(Arizona Highways TV)

Black-backed jackals are a bit smaller than our coyotes, and like warthogs, they get a bad rap.

“People sometimes refer to other people as jackals, and they are insinuating that it’s negative. However, that is a huge compliment. That actually comes from, back in Africa, the locals would sometimes refer to the jackals as being a little mischievous, a little sly, smarter than lions, so they’re sometimes outsmarting lions and stealing the prey. So, these guys are really cool.”

Hayden said the population of Wildlife World’s nursery changes week to week, even day to day, so you never know what you will see.

The aquarium

Wildlife World Zoo made a huge splash when it opened Arizona’s first public aquarium. It now has four aquarium buildings, which are home to 75-plus indoor exhibits, showcasing predators from both salt and fresh water.

The newest addition is the River Monsters exhibit.

“It really takes you like you’re down underwater in the Amazon,” Hayden said. “We have huge fish over there that are over 6 feet long, and you get to stand right next to them. The tanks are twice the size of most adults, and it’s just amazing to be surrounded by such large bodies of water and such large-bodied fish. I mean, some of them have teeth the size of our fingers.”

You can get up close with eels, giant Amazon river turtles, and the rarest of sea turtles.

The Predators Building is where you’ll find sharks, the always-entertaining otters, and it is the only place in Arizona where you can see an incredibly rare albino alligator. You can actually dip your fingers in the water at the Stingray Touch Tank to feed and interact with these creatures that seem to glide over the water.

Over at The Wild & The Wonderful Building, you’ll discover one of the most successful breeding programs, the African black-footed penguins.

Penguins mate for life and are active co-parents.
Penguins mate for life and are active co-parents.(Arizona Highways TV)

“We have them having eggs usually about once a year, which is a big deal because unfortunately, these guys are endangered,” Hayden explained. Why? Pollution. Oil spills. And their food source is being overfished. “Schooling fish make up the majority of their diet, and they’re having to go farther and farther out into the ocean, searching for that food. That makes them more vulnerable to predators, and that food is just not always available, so when we have a baby here, it’s something we’re celebrating, and it’s so sweet.”

These penguins mate for life and are active co-parents. They both build the nest and incubate the egg. Once the chicks get to a certain size, Wildlife World aquarists step in and help the parents raise the babies. The aquarists weigh the little ones every day to make sure they are growing properly. They also help teach them to swim. You’d think penguins were born knowing how to swim, but that is another way Wildlife World Zoo is helping to protect these vulnerable species.

“Our keepers will take the baby penguin behind the scenes and set up a kiddie pool and have the baby penguin get used to flapping in the water, kind of swimming around, putting his beak under the water, and they slowly graduate it to the giant pool that the penguins have.”

The sea lions of Shipwreck Cove

Sea lion trainer Kaeli Innes introduced to Andi, a 12-year-old California sea lion her pup, Junior. He was born at Shipwreck Cove and is now 3. Paris, a 10-year-old sea lion, is mom to two other pups born at Shipwreck Cove. The younger pup, Makara, is 2. Sunny, now 4, was the first marine animal born in Arizona.

“We provide our sea lions with what we call positive reinforcement lifestyle, and that just means that we constantly tell our animals, ‘Good job.’ This also means that everything our sea lions do here is voluntary, and our main goal with having our sea lions [trained] is to have them participate in their own healthcare.”

“All six of our sea lions are here as ambassadors to help educate our guests and our locals on how important it is to conserve our oceans and the wildlife among them,” Innes said. They focus on the three Rs of conservation.

  • Reduce
  • Reuse
  • Recycle

“If you can practice those every single day, even from here in the desert, then you can make a positive change on our oceans and the wildlife among them,” Innes said.

Weighing in at a little more than 400 pounds, Crockett is the biggest sea lion at Shipwreck Cove, and the trainers say he’s a goofball.

“He enjoys being the center of attention, and he really enjoys when cameras are out here with him,” Innes said. “Crockett has a really cool behavior that he actually taught himself to do. We call it his jump clap, but he just jumps out of the water and claps his flippers.”

Ornaments from the heart … or the nose

Sea lions have heart-shaped noses, and the trainers found a unique way to use that to raise money for animals.

“Our sea lions allow us to put paint right on their cute little nostrils here, and then we have some cute sea-lion-shaped ornaments and magnets. They’re laser-cut out of wood. “And then he lets us stamp his nose, right on these.”

The sea lions of Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park send kisses through unique...
The sea lions of Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park send kisses through unique ornaments and magnets.(Arizona Highways TV)

They’re adorable! You can buy one after the sea lion shows, and the money buys enrichment items for the Shipwreck Cove colony.

“All the proceeds go right back to these guys,” Innes said

Dillon’s

With a 60,000-gallon shark tank in the middle, the main restaurant at Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park is unique. Dillon’s is connected to the aquarium’s Predator House, and it’s known for its Kansas City-style barbecue.

“Kansas City is really known for barbecue,” Rich Dillon explained. “Barbecue is like a religion in Kansas City. What makes Kansas City barbecue unique is the seasonings -- salt, black pepper, Hungarian paprika is one of the major ingredients, brown sugar goes into it. Tere’s chili powder that goes in it, cayenne pepper. The smoke that we use in our barbecue pits is pecan wood, which is a sweeter, milder flavoring of barbecue.”

Dillon’s smokes up some of their meats for up to 18 hours, making their pulled pork even extra tender.

“Another thing that is unique about Kansas City barbecue, on the brisket in Kansas City, they’ll separate the top of the brisket from the bottom of the brisket. And the top of the brisket will go back in the smoker for an additional four-and-a-half to five hours. Then, when it comes out, it is going to be so tender, and that’s what we use for the burnt ends, which is twice-smoked brisket.

One specialty of the house is the brontosaurus beef ribs. They’re so big that side dishes won’t fit on the platter with them. The sides have to be served … well, on the side.

The onion rings at Dillon’s are a big deal, too.

In addition to its killer KC-style barbecue, Dillon's is to known for its amazing onion rings.
In addition to its killer KC-style barbecue, Dillon's is to known for its amazing onion rings.(Arizona Highways TV)

“We’ve got our reputation for onion rings. And the onion rings that we use are yellow colossal onions,” Dillon said. “We buy the onions and peel them and slice them ourselves.”

Above all, Dillon’s is family-friendly.

“You’ve heard of biker bars? I would have to say we’re a stroller bar here,” Dillon said. “This is no exaggeration. There are sometimes 60, 70 strollers lined up in the hallways there, and it is amazing how many families come in and enjoy us.”

Giraffes: “Silently slipping into extinction”

One of the most popular attractions at Wildlife World Zoo, Aquarium & Safari Park is the Giraffe Feeding Station. Giraffes are the tallest land mammals in the world, with females standing about 14 feet and males growing up to 19 feet tall. Two platforms put you right at eye level with them. Giraffes are gentle animals and quite social.

“Giraffes are silently slipping into extinction,” Hayden said. “As conservationists, we’re just now realizing that. When you think of African conservation, you usually think of elephants. However, there are four times as many elephants in Africa as there are giraffes.”

Habitat loss and poaching are two major reasons the population is starting to dwindle.

“They are just dealing with a lot out in the wild, so it’s really important we contribute to that genetic diversity,” Hayden said. Wildlife World is doing its part – almost 20 calves have been born there. Giraffes were one of Ollson’s favorite animals.

“It’s up to us to keep his legacy alive, so we do a lot of giraffe conservation,” Hayden said.