When Nik Dehejia became the Oakland Zoo’s director of strategic initiatives in 2006, visitors could view a range of exotic creatures that included elephants, tigers, and lions. What a difference 15 years has made.
Dehejia’s efforts have not only helped to more than double the zoo’s footprint—from 45 to 100 acres—but introduced in 2018 its California Trail, a 56-acre expansion of native species that includes grizzly and black bears, California condors, bison, and bald eagles. Also roaming the native plant habitats are mountain lions, gray wolves, and jaguars.
All of the species featured in the new exhibit are rescue animals, many of them nursed back to health after being found injured on roadways or hurt in wildfires. In fact, the zoo’s conservation efforts are saving some species from potential extinction, including certain amphibians and California condors.
“[The California Trail expansion] represents native species in a way that hadn’t ever been done before,” says Dehejia, who in April began duties as the zoo’s CEO. “It allows us to tell the story of California’s natural and human history.”
The expansion was made possible by an 11-year, $72 million capital campaign that concluded in 2018—money Dehejia helped raise. These days, Dehejia is leading the facility back to vibrancy after two pandemic-related shutdowns, hoping to again approach a million annual visitors.
“My focus is on how we continue our mission activities, whether it’s animal care or welfare, our conservation efforts, or our educational programs in the community,” he says.