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Men's Wearhouse Chairman's Other Life at the Zoo

George Zimmer, a Piedmont resident and lifelong animal lover, is working to improve animal habitats at the Oakland Zoo.

Name: George Zimmer

Age: 62

Occupation: Men’s Wearhouse founder and executive chairman

How are you involved with the Oakland Zoo?

I help raise money and [have played a role] in some of the political battles, getting [Oakland] city council permission, state monies. ...

It started about 25 years ago when our large African elephant named Smokey was featured in an unflattering way in People Magazine. [The elephant had trampled a zookeeper to death.] I called the zoo, met the director, Joel Parrott, and began a friendship that has lasted a quarter of a century. He was new at that time, and I was happy to be one of his funders as he went about the ongoing project of renovating the zoo, which is, in essence, now complete.

What’s the next big project?

We’re breaking ground on a $10 million vet hospital.

We’re also fund-raising for a new project called the California Trail. It’s going to be accessible by gondola. ... A lovely boardwalk area will weave around [habitat for] five or six animals that were all at one time native to this part of California, including grizzly bears—which are on our flag but not now on our soil. … It’s almost embarrassing not to have grizzly bears represented in the zoo. ...

Our grizzly bear and wolf enclosures will each be over two acres in size. We can do this for the animals because of so much space … 500 acres … more land than San Diego Zoo. …

There will also be fauna from the area, and an overnight camping ground. … We also want to develop an amphitheater for group use and for zoo presentations.

This is our most ambitious project, in excess of $50 million. It’s a fantastic plan, and can use everybody’s and anybody’s help and money. Call Joel at the zoo. Or go down to the zoo and talk to him.

What have the animals taught you?

The interesting thing I’ve come to learn about animals is that they don’t want to interact with people. It only happens by accident, including shark encounters.

People used to live here when all these animals were running around and not many were killed in these encounters because humans and animals respected each others’ space.

Have you always been interested in animals?

I grew up in NYC—first in Stuyvesant Town, the first middle income housing in the U.S., then we moved to Scarsdale. My mother was very interested in animals. We had dogs and cats. It’s hard to invest emotional energy in animals and not get it returned.

How did you wind up in Piedmont?

From New York, I went to Washington University in St. Louis, where I majored in economics. I came to the Bay Area for business opportunities, weather, and women.

My current wife, Lorri, is from Sacramento. She’s the mother of our two small children, every teacher’s favorite. … She’s very involved in many fund-raisers and school activities in Piedmont. Our children are son Kai, who is 11, and daughter Kami, age 9. … And we have a couple of dogs, a big one and a little one—Zack and Zeke.

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