Mary Healy, executive director and chief executive officer of the Sacramento Zoo for almost 15 years, died unexpectedly Thursday while traveling to the Galapagos Islands, officials said. She was 61.
Healy had left a port in Ecuador by ship when she had a cerebral aneurysm and was declared brain dead, zoo officials said Friday. The ship returned to Ecuador and she was taken to a hospital, where she had a massive heart attack, said Dr. Ray Wack, the zoo’s veterinarian.
Colleagues were stunned to learn about Healy’s death in a phone call Friday from her husband, Steve O’Brien, who was traveling with her.
“There is a sense of disbelief among the zoo staff, board members and all the friends that she has in zoos around the world,” said Adrian Fowler, curator for the animal collection.
Healy was headed to the Galapagos Islands on business and vacation to see animals in the wild and their habitats, said zoo spokewoman Tonja Candelaria.
“It was also the thing she loved most, being out in the field,” Candelaria said.
Healy joined the Sacramento Zoo in December 1999 with extensive experience at traditional zoos in Texas and South Carolina and a Disney animal park. She oversaw construction of a full-scale veterinary hospital and renovations of habitats for many animals, including a $2 million update of the giraffe yard and a $175,000 exhibit for North American river otters.
Widely respected in the professional community, she was a board member and former chair of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums and served on the accreditation commission. She was president of the California Association of Zoos and Aquariums and was one of nine international council members of the World Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
A native of Syracuse, N.Y., Healy earned a psychology degree from State University of New York in Binghamton. She started her career in 1975 as a bird keeper and rose to assistant curator of birds at Riverbanks Park in Columbia, S.C. After seven years as curator of birds at the San Antonio Zoo in Texas, she spent nine years as director of Discovery Island Zoological Park at Walt Disney World in Orlando, Fla.
She arrived at the Sacramento Zoo in Land Park at a critical time, two years after charges of poor management and animal abuse and neglect threatened the institution’s certification and existence. Investigations found no blatant mismanagement or animal mistreatment, and the zoo retained its accreditation. Since then, the zoo has broken away from city oversight and now operates privately.
Healy’s background in zoo design, renovation and construction has been seen as an asset in carrying out the Sacramento Zoo’s master plan. In 1999, she told The Sacramento Bee that zoos are important tools for engaging and educating people – especially children – about other species.
“It’s so important to teach people about these animals and let them know they can do something to protect their natural environments,” she said. “Without seeing the animals up close, people don’t have that passion. There is no reason for them to care.”
Sacramento City Council member Steve Hansen, whose district includes the zoo, said Friday he would lead a moment of silence at a ceremony Saturday evening in front of the zoo where new bike racks are being installed.
“She had a great vision for the zoo, and it’s really a devastating loss for the city and certainly the zoo,” Hansen said.
In addition to her husband, Healy is survived by relatives in the United States. A memorial is being planned.
Zoo officials said her family asked that no flowers be sent. Memorial donations may be made to the Sacramento Zoological Society.