LITCHFIELD PARK, Ariz. -- Is a giraffe's tongue as long as the animal is tall? It looked that way when one of them at the Wildlife World Zoo rolled out a massive tongue to take pellets of food from the outstretched hand of a 5-year-old girl.
The giraffe made fast work of the offering and moved on to the next handout from a cluster of excited kids and adults gathered on a tree-high platform that put us all eye to eye.
That accessibility and closeness to wild things is the norm at the 60-acre privately owned zoo in Phoenix's West Valley, about 25 miles from downtown. It's the home of more than 350 species of birds, animals, reptiles, and fish, many of them rare and endangered, many bred and raised here.
The close encounters represent founder and director Mickey Ollson's desire to give people of all ages memorable experiences with animals of all kinds as part of his life long commitment to conservation, recreation, education, and scientific study. Wildlife World is a member of the American Zoo and Aquarium Association and the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
``We have more than 2,500 animals, birds, reptiles, and fish -- the largest collection of its kind in the state," Ollson said in a telephone interview. ``The inventory is always changing, though, because things are born, things die, and things go to other zoos."
Ollson, 65, oversees an active breeding program, usually propagating animals and birds for other zoos, depending on demand. The zoo is breeding penquins now because of their popularity -- resulting in part from the hit movie ``March of the Penguins " -- while there are no requests for African lions.
Unlike zoos that keep animals behind barriers and away from people, Wildlife World's residents often are only a foot or two away from visitors, hanging out in natural settings, wide-open pastures, pens, and cages. We picnicked at a table overlooking large turtles the color of the sand and walked among kangaroos in a fenced area. The variety of trees and shrubs creates a botanical garden-like setting while providing wonderful shade for the animals -- humans included.
To help visitors appreciate the animals, the zoo posts signs providing details about origins, characteristics, natural habitats, and unusual facts. A sign for an African leopard born last year stated it was recovering from rare heart surgery, a first for a cat, though it had been performed on dogs.
``He's recovering nicely -- so far, so good," said Ollson.
On our short visit, it was impossible to see everything, so we navigated with a zoo map to find points of interest for the youngsters in our group. We laughed as monkeys swung and climbed in a huge, tree-shaded cage that was about two arms' lengths away. And we pondered how pink flamingos sleep while standing on one leg with their long necks curled onto their backs.
On an ostrich field, two staffers entered the area to retrieve a lens cap that had fallen as the elevated Sky Ride passed overhead. They gently waved rakes to shoo away the ostriches who were flapping their wings and squawking. With two giant eggs lying in the open, they were obviously protecting their own.
Among other strikingly unusual animals were a white tiger and an albino wallaby. Without their color camouflage, neither might have survived in the wild.
Ollson, a Phoenix native, began welcoming the public to the zoo in 1984, 10 years after he bought 20 acres here for his exotic bird breeding business. The evolution into a zoo was natural for Ollson, who had had a menagerie since childhood.
``I grew up on my grandfather's farm in the East Valley, where I had all kinds of exotic animals," he said. ``When my parents asked what I wanted for Christmas, I always told them, anything alive. "
His wishes came true and over time he nurtured farm animals, rabbits, birds, goldfish, and salamanders, among other critters. By the time he was in high school, he was breeding and selling guinea pigs. After graduating from Arizona State University, he became a teacher and started breeding exotic birds as a hobby. In 1974, he bought the land where Wildlife World Zoo now stands and his hobby became a full-time career.
Ollson has seen what was once wide-open desert near the zoo transformed into housing subdivisions and shopping centers. When the state expands the highway on the zoo's western border in the next four or five years, an exit ramp is slated to replace the zoo's current parking lot and entrance, so Ollson and his crew have begun work on a new entrance and lot on the east side. The zoo has a dozen full-time animal keepers and, depending on the season, 25 to 40 other full- and part-time employees.
It would have been easy to spend an entire day at the zoo, visiting the reptile house, the aquarium, and riding through various exhibit areas. We did make time for a ride on the wild animal carousel.
Contact Jan Shepherd, a freelance writer in Boston, at jshep@earth link.net.