Taking the helm in 1984 as Oakland Zoo stood on the brink of permanent closure and was deemed ‘one of the ten worst U.S. Zoos’ by the Humane Society, Dr. Parrott’s decades-long leadership, commitment, and vision have made the Oakland Zoo of today a nationally recognized, award-winning, top Bay Area attraction known for excellence in animal welfare, wildlife conservation and rescue.
Oakland, CA – January 25, 2021 – After leading Oakland Zoo for almost four decades, President & CEO, Dr. Joel Parrott is announcing his retirement, slated for spring 2021, once the Zoo has reopened and restabilized from the current closure mandate set forth by State and County Health Departments.
Beginning his tenure in 1984 as Assistant Director and Staff Veterinarian, Dr. Parrott was appointed Zoo Director one year later. At the time, Oakland Zoo was virtually bankrupt and branded by media as one of the ten worst zoos in the U.S. for animal welfare. Dr. Parrott began by relentlessly, and successfully, rallying the City of Oakland for the financial support needed in order to save the Zoo from certain closure. At only twenty-five acres large and just fifteen employees, Dr. Parrott quickly began making improvements to the Zoo infrastructure that supported his long-term vision of the nationally accredited, award-winning, progressive, conservation and education-focused, 100-acre Zoo it is today.
“Dr. Parrott’s dedication and value to the Conservation Society of California—Oakland Zoo has been, and still is, incalculable. His guiding principles and tireless vision transformed the Zoo into the internationally known, conservation-focused, award-winning organization we know and love today. We are grateful for his leadership and we look forward to building on his incredible legacy. We’re excited for the Zoo’s and Dr. Parrott’s next chapters, and his continued engagement as a Conservation Society of California Trustee Emeritus”- Pamela Schock Mintzer, Chair, Board of Trustees.
Dr. Parrott’s vision began with ensuring the animals that lived at Oakland Zoo were the top priority: animal welfare and their habitats. Often quoted as saying “we go home every night, the animals live their lives here,” he increased staff and training, improved husbandry practices, and built new habitats and remodeled old ones for many species including tigers, lions, baboons, Sun bears, and so many more. Throughout the years, habitats and new areas continue(d) to be built, rebuilt and expanded; notably a brand new 6.5-acre African elephant habitat complete with swimming pool that enabled the elephants to roam, the Tropical Rainforest, and the African Savanna; by then almost doubling the original size of Oakland Zoo to 45 acres.
In 1990, Dr. Parrott made Oakland Zoo the first Zoo in the U.S. to adopt an animal husbandry methodology called “protected contact” in caring for the Zoo’s African elephants. The trailblazing practice proved very beneficial for elephants – prohibiting animal care staff from entering their habitat or space; because entering requires the use of a pain-inflicting instrument called a bullhook against the elephant in order to control them. With Dr. Parrott’s advocacy other U.S. zoos also began adopting the protected contact husbandry practice, and after 20 years, almost every accredited Zoo in the U.S. began using the protected contact method in their elephant husbandry. In 2014, Dr. Parrott also lobbied politically, including holding press conferences at Oakland Zoo, to have bullhook use banned in circuses, with the outcome that Ringling Bros. soon thereafter closed their doors permanently, sending their elephants to sanctuaries in Florida.
Intent to foster an appreciation for nature and wildlife in Zoo guests, rather than viewing animals as entertainment, Dr. Parrott founded an Education department in 1985 and brought it to completion in 1999 with a brand-new 17,500 sq. ft. Education Center, housing multiple classrooms and expansive auditorium. Over 50,000 students are served annually through the Zoo’s Education Department. He also founded a Conservation department, today with over twenty-five global partners and over $1.5 million donated by Zoo programs to support their efforts to save animals in the wild. In 2005 he unveiled a new and expansive Children’s Zoo, with a Wildlife Experience amphitheater enabling school groups and Zoo guests to learn more about the animals both at the Zoo and in the wild.
Dr. Parrott’s grandest vision took over two decades of planning, lobbying, fundraising, and construction to make a reality; a 56-acre expansion (bringing Oakland Zoo to a total 100 acres) opened in 2018, called the California Trail and focused on respecting and conserving our state’s wildlife, both past and present. The transformational project included building a 17,000 sq. ft, LEED Gold certified, state-of-the-art veterinary hospital, opened in 2012. Accessible by ADA electric gondolas, the California Trail includes a Conservation Habitarium, California Wilds! playground highlighting various eco-zones of the state, and stunning Bay Area views from 450 feet above sea level. Its eight progressive, expansive, animal welfare-focused habitats, designed in partnership with wildlife experts, won a national Exhibit Design Award from the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums). The addition of California Trail made Oakland Zoo officially one of the four largest Zoos in California alongside San Diego, Los Angeles, and San Francisco Zoo(s).
Many of the animals brought to the California Trail are wildlife rescues, in need of a permanent home due to human-wildlife conflict circumstances. The addition of California Trail quadrupled the Zoo’s original size, doubling Zoo visitors to 970,000 in its first year and earning Oakland Zoo a place in U.S. News & World Report as a “Top 30 U.S. Zoo”.
Dr. Parrott’s many achievements, including Zoo-to-Community programs to make the Zoo free and accessible to underserved communities, were recognized by Oakland’s Jobs and Housing Coalition in 2019, where he was chosen to receive the 2019 Legacy Award, recognizing ‘blazing business and civic leaders.’
Most recently, Dr. Parrott’s passion for conservation of wildlife in wild places has only grown. To better reflect the Zoo’s mission and evolving purpose for conservation, in 2018 the legal name of Oakland Zoo’s managing entity was changed from the East Bay Zoological Society to the Conservation Society of California. His focus in recent years includes a new wildlife restoration program named the Iinnii Initiative, in partnership with WCS (Wildlife Conservation Society) and the Blackfeet Nation of Montana. The effort entails to restore free-ranging, genetically pure and diverse bison to Blackfeet land and Glacier National Park. After his retirement, Dr. Parrott hopes to continue and focus more work in the conservation and restoration of wildlife in our National Parks system.
Nik Dehejia, a fifteen year-veteran of Oakland Zoo and currently serving as its Executive Vice President, has been named as successor to Dr. Parrott, serving under his mentorship for several years. Also deeply invested in wildlife conservation and well-established in running many Zoo operations, Dehejia was voted unanimously by Oakland Zoo’s Board of Trustees to succeed Dr. Parrott as the new President & CEO once he retires in the coming months.
“Joel has consistently set the example in delivering on our mission of inspiring respect for and stewardship of the natural world. He has been tireless in pursing excellence in saving wildlife and wild places and ensuring a great place in Oakland for the community to have joyful and memorable experiences. The future of the Oakland Zoo is bright, and I look forward to working alongside so many dedicated and committed individuals and engaging further with our supportive community of supporters,” said Nik Dehejia.
To honor Dr. Joel Parrott, for making possible Oakland Zoo as it is today, and to ensure the continuation of his legacy of connecting people and wildlife, the Oakland Zoo and the Conservation Society of California will designate him a lifelong Trustee Emeritus of the Board of Directors. In addition, along with the previously named ‘Dr. Joel Parrott Overlook’ at California Trail’s thirteen-acre bison habitat, Flamingo Plaza, at the Zoo’s main entrance, will be renamed “Parrott Plaza.” Lastly, in accordance with Dr. Parrott’s devotion to animal welfare, a fund for habitat improvement work has been established, entitled the “Joel J. Parrott Habitat Advancement Fund.”
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