Rock Perks Spotlight: John Ball Zoo
By Mason Nichols
Across the world, zoos have evolved through the years by learning more about exotic animal husbandry and exhibit design. Over time, education became a major focus, naturalistic design became a force and conservation became the mission.
The story of Rock Perks partner John Ball Zoo reflects that evolution. The zoo’s history is rich with great animals, amazing events, fantastic stories and dedicated people.
In 1884, John Ball died and in his will left 40 acres of land for public use to the City of Grand Rapids. This gift led to the birth of John Ball Zoo. The land he left was being used by the public as a park and was fondly called the “Ball 40.” In 1890, the Common Council declared it would be called John Ball Park. Just a year later, references to animals being kept at “Ball 40” appeared, as recorded in a local newspaper and archives. Over time, the zoo grew, contracted and roared back several times. In 1989, the City of Grand Rapids sold the zoo to Kent County for $1. Kent County operated the zoo until 2014, when a deal was signed that transferred governance and operation of the zoo to a non-profit entity now called the John Ball Zoo. Under this agreement, Kent County retains ownership of the zoo’s property and continues to support the zoo through a management fee.
Today, John Ball Zoo is home to 2,000 animals, 250 species and hundreds of employees — all who help generate an annual attendance of more than 520,000 guests and more than 700,000 visitors in total. In turn, John Ball Zoo has a more than $40 million direct economic impact on the area, based on a 2016 economic impact study conducted by Grand Valley State University.
We sat down with Mike Lomonaco, chief development and community engagement officer, to learn more about John Ball Zoo.
What makes John Ball Zoo Unique?
There are so many unique qualities of John Ball Zoo. First, we are, after all, a zoo! The zoo is home to nearly 2,000 animals and 250 unique species. We also employ hundreds of people who work together to deliver the amazing experience our community expects when they visit. John Ball Zoo also delivers more than 800 education programs each year. These programs take place both at the zoo and throughout our communities. Many teachers work with the zoo to achieve their continuing education credits.
On top of that, we are accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), a level of accreditation that fewer than 10% of zoos and aquariums in North American are able to achieve. Being an AZA-accredited organization means that we are subject to a process every 5 years led through the AZA Accreditation Commission — a group of sixteen experienced and trained experts in operations, animal welfare and husbandry, and veterinary medicine. It also means that John Ball Zoo has established the highest level of animal welfare, is conservation- and science-based, and has a focus on both protecting the environment and wild places in order to save animals from extinction.
In addition, John Ball Zoo is a hillside zoo. We enjoy 110 acres of land, 31 of which the current zoo sits on. We also have 18 acres of dedicated green space, which includes parks and play areas. Plus, we operate several unique rental facilities such as the Bissell Tree House and the zoo itself. Yes, that’s right, you can literally rent out the zoo after-hours for your next event!
What’s your favorite thing about operating in Grand Rapids?
The community and culture of collaboration. Being a zoo, we have the unique opportunity to bring people from all walks of life together to realize our mission of protecting wild places and the environment in order to save animals from extinction. We feel that this is something all people have an interest in. Achieving that goal takes everyone — at every level — working together towards the greater good of our region, state, country and world.
What’s the most satisfying part about serving your customers and the community?
To put it in the simplest of terms, the most satisfying part about serving our customers and the community is that connection that the zoo helps to make. Whether it’s time spent with a loved one, making lifelong memories or simply enjoying time spent outside learning and being connected to nature and all those who call it home. John Ball Zoo is committed to delivering a unique, fun and memorable experience every single day. In turn, we hope a connection to us inspires action that will help make the world a better place for animals and human beings.
Why did you join the Rock Perks program? What benefits has it brought to you and your customers?
Rock Perks, at its core, is a program that we felt was all about connection and collaboration. Through the program and its members, John Ball Zoo felt there was an incredible opportunity to be a part of something bigger while also providing unique value and opportunities. While we are a regional asset that attracts visitors from all 83 counties in Michigan and all 50 states, we are a local organization that is privileged to call Grand Rapids’ West Side home. Therefore, we have a responsibility to be good neighbors and partners with those who have similar values.
What’s on the horizon for John Ball Zoo?
Growth, evolution and FUN! John Ball Zoo continues to invest in new habitats, improve infrastructure and develop new ways to engage the community while delivering a premium experience for all our guests.
Beginning May 1, John Ball Zoo will welcome BRICKLIVE, Animal Paradise. Continuing through September 7, this unique exhibition will feature more than 40 life-sized animal sculptures created with more than1.8 million individually colored building bricks. John Ball Zoo is only the third zoo in the country to have been chosen to host the exhibition and the first in Michigan. The exhibition of sculptures will be located throughout the zoo for guests to enjoy during their visit.
As you enter the zoo, there’s a new front entry. The pathways have been re-graded and are now quite a bit less steep. This whole area of our site is going to be deemed a “Living Building Challenge Certification” — the first in the state of Michigan. And it also means everything you see behind us, all this construction, not one ounce of material went into a landfill. Many members of our community have probably heard of LEED, which is a certification building standard. However, we looked at that and we felt it didn’t go far enough.
Other updates to our infrastructure include a stormwater plan that will allow the zoo to divert about 25 million gallons of rain and from entering the Grand River.
We’re actually using nature. By moving the water around the property and channeling it, we’re using evapotranspiration (which is water pulled up into plants), and then leaching into the groundwater. We’re going to direct that water into the pond. John Ball Zoo previously had to pump about 1 million gallons of city water a year into the pond that sits at the zoo’s entrance.
There is also a new bathroom at the zoo’s entrance made completely out of old shipping containers.
There is a lot of construction and planning currently underway that will allow the zoo to continue expanding in the future. One of the exciting new animals we’re bringing to the zoo in our master plan is the Pygmy Hippo. The arrival of these (somewhat) tiny hippos is still a few years away and is dependent on our community’s continued financial support, as is a Steller’s Sea Eagle exhibit, which will be located where the Bald Eagles currently are.
One exhibit that will be ready for guests when the gates open up is an interactive Meerkat habitat. What guests will see this year is that it’s one of the best Meerkat habitats in the U.S. African Porcupines are sharing the space with the Meerkats.
Right next to the new habitat is a large rock with several brass Meerkats permanently perched atop. The piece was completed by local sculptor Mic Carlson. We are hoping this will become a great photo op for families, with every new habitat having some type of commissioned local art.
Is there anything else you’d like to share?
In addition to the incredible work we are doing at John Ball Zoo to enhance the experience, provide the best animal welfare and enrichment, and continue to grow, we also remain focused on saving the environment and remaining accessible to the community.
To realize our mission of protecting and enhancing wild places, we have taken several actions. One notable item is eliminating plastic beverage bottles in 2020. As a conservation-based zoo, we have a responsibility to both educate as well as act to demonstrate our values. We will offer the Holland-based Boxed Water is Better brand water instead of plastic bottled water. The boxes are made of paper and 100% recyclable. This isn’t the first change the zoo has made in an effort to be more environmentally friendly.
Two years ago, we stopped using plastic straws in favor of compostable paper ones. We have also eliminated plastic cutlery, switching to compostable forks, spoons, knives, cups and napkins.
We estimate that the switch to compostable straws alone has saved more than 8,000 plastic straws a year from going to landfills. The move away from plastic bottles will save 37,134 bottles in one year. John Ball Zoo and Boxed Water will also be hosting a social media campaign. For each person that posts a picture on social media with their Boxed Water and #BetterPlanet, Boxed Water will plant two trees. This campaign has the potential to result in thousands of new trees.
On the accessibility front, we recently announced an expansion of the JUMP program. In this increased level, we have evolved the JUMP program to offer free admissions to anyone who has MI Bridges and WIC cards in Michigan — and up to nine people in the same household — when we open in 2020.
We are excited to announce this important evolution of the JUMP program and are thankful to the sponsors who help make it happen. John Ball Zoo is committed to inspiring every guest to be active participants in the conservation of wildlife and our natural environment. We believe everyone should have the opportunity to experience and cultivate a positive connection to wildlife and wild places and seek to include all members of our community regardless of economic status or other limiting factors. The change to the program comes after ongoing conversations with 19 nonprofits and cultural organizations throughout West Michigan, along with 37 other Association of Zoos & Aquariums-accredited organizations to identify opportunities for improvement with the JUMP program.
Finally, while John Ball Zoo is closed and many are home from work and school, our team is focused on making your time fun and educational.
Join us on Facebook as we visit our animals and various areas around the zoo, talk with keepers and more with videos and pictures on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday at 2:00 p.m.
As a Rockford Property Management resident, member of Blue35 or Rockford Construction team member, you have access to the Rock Perks program, which will get you 10% off admission at John Ball Zoo. Don’t have a Rock Perks card yet? Consider joining us as a resident.