A saner man may have said, “No thanks.” The Oakland Zoo had a reputation for being one of the worst in the country when Dr. Joel Parrott took over the director’s job in 1983. But in a matter of months, he had engineered a plan to replace the outdated exhibits with state-of-the-art animal habitats. Twenty-three years later, Oakland is considered a model for zoos around the world.
Q: When you came to the Oakland Zoo, it had just been named one of the 10 worst zoos by the Humane Society of America. How did you turn it around?
A: The first thing I did was put together a list of my greatest concerns. The Humane Society highlighted the sun bear grotto and the elephant enclosure and the lion grotto. But those animals weren’t having problems because of their enclosures. The real problems were the ocelots—they were pacing and stressed, in too small a cage. When that was taken care of, we went on to the next concern on the list.
Q: In those early years, you had quite a reputation for being a hands-on guy. You even operated your own heavy equipment at the zoo.
A: Well, we didn’t have any money, and I heard so many people say, “Well, we can’t do it because we don’t have any money.” My attitude then, as it is now, is, “We’ll find a way to do it.”
Q: How did the zoo directors feel about that?
A: It was more of a worry for my staff because the first time I learned to use a backhoe, my first bite in the ground ruptured a water line. It was after hours, and we had to call people in just to find out how to shut the water off because it was spraying all over everything.
Q: Do you get ribbed for being a bird doctor and having the last name Parrott?
A: You know, I made Herb Caen’s column a few years back. He thought it was pretty neat that my name was related to what I did. But Dr. Parrott isn’t even the best. I have a colleague in wildlife medicine whose name is Peregrine Wolf.
Q: There’s no nice way to ask this next question. Is your home a zoo too?
A: We’ve got a cat, two guinea pigs, two birds and a dog. We’ve had rabbits, too; and a boa constrictor.
Q: You say you had a boa constrictor. It didn’t get away, did it?
A: No, I gave it to the zoo. I didn’t want it around the house anymore. They smell, to tell you the truth, compared to dogs and cats.
Q: Do you have to have a special wardrobe to be a zoo director?
A: Every time I wear a tie it has an animal on it, because I want to be the greatest promoter of wildlife every bit of the day. But that said, I’m one of the very few who can get away with wearing safari clothes to work every single day.
Q: Khakis are great when you’re running a backhoe.
A: Q: Yeah. They don’t show the dirt.