ABOUT US

JOHN BALL ZOO HISTORY

HISTORY

125 Years of Inspiring Our Community To Be Actively Engaged In The Conservation Of Wildlife And Our Natural Environment

125 YEARS: 1891-2016 … and beyond!

In many ways, our history reflects that of most American zoos created in the Victorian era. Before then, only the very rich had access to collections of exotic animals. Cities began to build their own zoos in the late 19th century. For the first time, everyone could share in the mysterious and fascinating world of animals.

Zoos have evolved through the years as we learned more about exotic animal husbandry and exhibit design. Education became a major focus, naturalistic design became a force, and conservation became the mission.

Our story reflects that evolution. Our history is rich with great animals, amazing events, fantastic stories, and dedicated people. Take a few moments to learn more about the history and future of your Zoo. 

Many thanks to Andrea Perry and Joan Ryskamp for their assistance on the historical timeline.

The Evolution of John Ball Zoo

During the past 125 years, millions and millions of people have enjoyed the animals, reconnected with nature, and made memories with family and friends. Can you even imagine how many people have taken a happy snap of their kids on the John Ball statue? How many school field trips to the Zoo? How many family reunions? The Zoo is part of West Michigan’s culture and history. We know it’s part of yours.

Come and celebrate with us! Read the stories, see our photo albums, visit the Zoo and join the party!

1884 - Chapter 1: A zoological garden is born.

The Birth of a Zoo

John Ball died and in his will left 40 acres of land for public use to City of Grand Rapids. This gift led to the birth of a zoo, John Ball Zoo.

1884 - Chapter 1: A zoological garden is born.

1890

John Ball Park

The land John Ball 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.

1890

1891

The First Animals

This is the year we begin to see references to animals being kept at “Ball 40”. As recorded in a local newspaper, the small menagerie included bird cages with half a dozen owls of various kinds, two hawks, a crow, and an eagle. There were also raccoons, a woodchuck, fox squirrels and rabbits. Two deer were added later in November of 1891. This was recorded in the minutes of a meeting of the Common Council. Two aldermen volunteered money from their salaries to purchase a pair of deer. The buck and doe, were specifically purchased to provide the beginning of a herd to populate a deer park area on the hillside.

1891

1894

Ol’Jack the Bear

Though the animal collection was growing, visitors wanted a bear. Our best guess is that “Ol’Jack the Bear” was added in this year. Jack becomes a favorite, if often notorious critter, in the Zoo.

1894

1895

The First Bear Exhibit

A new bear exhibit with a cave and room for a whole family was built and a bride for Jack the Bear was acquired.  

1895

1897

Ol’Jack Escapes

Tragedy hits and the city mourned the loss of Ol’ Jack after his escape.

1897

1902

New Exhibits Added

By now the Zoo’s animal collection had grown and exhibits had been added including peacocks, swans, bear, fox, grey wolf and pigeons.

1902

1903

The Park Day Tradition

Park Day was a city tradition. Workers would get a half day off and all the city parks would open on the same day. Throngs of citizens would arrive to enjoy band concerts, speeches, and stroll the grounds

.

1903

1908

John W. Smith “The Keeper”

We don’t know very much about the workers who originally cared for the animals but an interview with John W. Smith “The Keeper” in the local paper gives us some insight. A former circus animal handler and trainer talks about how he cares for the animals.

1908

1909

Animals enjoying music

A reporter took a victrola through the Zoo and played music in front of various animals.

1909

1910 - Chapter 2: Changing worlds; Wars and the Great Depression.

Park Pavillion Dedication

John Ball Park Pavilion dedicated. The new park pavilion was built on an area where the park’s conservatory and greenhouses had previously stood. The building currently houses the Zoo’s administrative offices and GRPS Zoo School.

1910 - Chapter 2: Changing worlds; Wars and the Great Depression.

1916

Grizzlies and Wolves

Grizzly Bear and wolf were added.

1916

1925

John Ball statue

John Ball statue installed and dedicated.

1925

1927

the future of aviation

Charles Lindbergh visits to throngs of admirers. Flew Spirit of St. Louis to GR two months after his trans-Atlantic record breaking flight. Addressed the crowd about the future of aviation.

1927

1930

Surviving The Depression

Some of the animals were dispersed during the Depression to other zoos-only small group of animals remained. Zoo correspondence from the 1930’s refers to quite a few animal purchases in 1929-32, then letters referring to food costs and efforts to keep animals and increase zoo budget. There were sales of some of the animals later in the 30’s. There is documentation that the Zoo also boarded animals for the DNR during the 1930’s. The Park seems to have remained busy with concerts and events.  

1930

1948

The end of World War II

Once the World War II is over, city residents begin to protest decline of park and zoo.

1948

1949 - Chapter 3: First Zoo director and Zoo expands.

The Formation of the Zoo Society

Katherine Whinery and other citizens pressure City to rebuild Zoo with help from the public. Kay was instrumental in the formation of the Zoo Society. First community meeting to form Zoo Society was held. Kay was on the first board and stayed on the board until her death in 1998.

1949 - Chapter 3: First Zoo director and Zoo expands.

1949

The first Zoo Director

Fred Meyer was hired to be first Zoo Director and Fred See was hired as Director of City Parks. The two of them rebuilt and enlarged the Zoo throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s.

1949

1950

John Ball Zoo Society incorporated as non-profit

Monkey Island Exhibit constructed.

Aviary constructed.

John Ball Zoo Society was incorporated as non-profit and agreed to raise private funds to improve the Zoo.

Ben Pedigo was elected its first President.

1950

1951

rights to concessions in park and zoo

City gives rights to concessions in park and zoo to the Zoo Society. Jack Loeks was hired to operate the facilities.

The Zoo grew and Fred Meyer added 52 species.

1951

1952

Waterfowl and Raccoon Exhibits Constructed

Waterfowl Exhibit constructed.

Raccoon Exhibit constructed.

1952

1953

A New Entry

John Ball Zoo Entry constructed.

1953

1954

LV Eberhard elected Zoo Society President

LV Eberhard elected Zoo Society President. LV was president until 1964 and remained active member of the Board until he passed away in 1991.

1954

1955

First children’s zoo

First children’s zoo opens, donated by LV.

1955

1957

Camels, Spider Monkeys, and Bear Cubs

Camels arrive at the Zoo.

New Spider monkeys arrive after two years of monkey revolt on Monkey Island.

Black bear cubs born.

1957

1958

Bear Exhibits

Bear Exhibits donated by Mr. X (Henry Masten).

1958

1959

Fred Meyer honored, Polar Bears and Sea Lion arrive

Fred Meyer honored by AAZPA (now AZA)

Michigan Exhibits (Upper run) constructed.

Polar bears arrive.

Bison Exhibit constructed.

Sea Lion/Nutria arrive.

1959

1960

John Ball Zoo Aquarium

Aquarium constructed.

1960

1961

The Education Building

Conservatory (enclosed jungle) constructed.

Education Building constructed.

Ostrich Exhibit constructed.

1961

1964

Jaguars Arrive

Elephant Exhibit completed.

Jaguars added to the collection.

1964

1965

Zoella, The First Elephant

Zoella, the one and only elephant, arrives at the Zoo.

1965

1967

Hooved stock yards

Hooved stock yards built.

1967

1970

Special Exhibits Building

Special Exhibits Building constructed next to Monkey Island.

 
1970

1971 - Chapter 4: Education becomes a major focus.

Animal Care Center

New Zoo entrance.

Animal Care Center built.

Jerry Ford donates a Chincoteague pony to Zoo.

Kiwanis Kannonball Express begins operation. At this time the Kiwanis North operated the admissions at the Zoo and they operated the Kannonball.

1971 - Chapter 4: Education becomes a major focus.

1972

Concessions Update

New Concession Plaza.

1972

1973

Education Programs in Development

Otters join our collection.

Tiger cubs born at the Zoo.

Mary Roth hired to create education programs and train volunteers.

1973

1974

Volunteer Program began with assistance from Junior League

Lion and Tiger Exhibits built.

Volunteer Program began with assistance from Junior League. Sandy Wooldridge was named president of Zoo Doers. Sandy helped start and was first president of the Zoo Doer’s. The current volunteer of the year award was named after her when she passed away.  

1974

1975

Zoo School Established

GR Public Schools establishes Zoo School at John Ball Zoo.

1975

1978

Losing Zoella

Beloved elephant dies, city mourns.

1978

1979

Adventure World opens

A Zoo Master Plan is created by the City and the Zoo Society

Society names Sandy Gibbs their first female president.

Adventure World opens. The lead donor was the LV Eberhard who had been the lead donor for the original children’s Zoo.

A Rose Garden planted on roof of Special Exhibits building (now Tropics).

1979

1980 - Chapter 5: A master plan and new ownership.

first million dollar donation

Zoo Society kicks off fund drive for first phase of the Master Plan. The first phase would totally renovate the central core of the Zoo by 1985.

LV Eberhard gives first million dollar donation ever to Zoo.

Children’s Zoo Barnyard (expanded children’s zoo area).

1980 - Chapter 5: A master plan and new ownership.

1981

Zoo Master Plan Breaks Ground

In August, ground was broken for first phase of Zoo Master Plan.

County Commission via the Roads and Parks Commission offers to contribute $50,000 annually towards Zoo operations.

Zoo Society hires its first permanent full time employee, Brenda Stringer.

Fred Meyer retires as Zoo Director after 32 years.

Chuck Wikenhauser is hired as new Zoo Director.

1981

1982

Phase I of Zoo Master Plan

The first four renovated exhibits in Phase I of Zoo Master Plan open:

Otter Exhibit (totally replaced old sea lion exhibit)

Prairie Dog/Coyote (replaced elephant exhibit)


Puma/Snow Leopard Exhibit (totally replaced Michigan upper run exhibits)


Monkey Island Winter Quarters and rework of island

Ramu, the lion, gets a root canal.

1982

1983

first zoo in Michigan to receive accreditation

New herpetarium/nocturnal animal building opens at Zoo. LV Eberhard and Peter Cook funded.

Zoo becomes first zoo in Michigan to receive accreditation from American Zoo and Aquarium Association 

1983

1984

100 years of John Ball Park

Original Penguin exhibit opens, donated by the Frey Family.

Zoo celebrates 100 years of John Ball Park

1984

1985

Zoo Society establishes the John Ball Zoo Society Wildlife Conservation Fund

South American Exhibit opens at Zoo completing Phase I of Zoo Master Plan. Steve Van Andel chaired this campaign.

With assistance from John Boyles and Mr. Fables restaurants, Zoo Society establishes the John Ball Zoo Society Wildlife Conservation Fund.

This was also a year of tragedy for the Zoo. Gayle Booth, a young dedicated zoo keeper, was killed by the Zoo’s male jaguar. This was a terrible loss to Gayle’s family, friends, and all of us at the Zoo. Safety became the most important priority in building future exhibits as it was shown that a flaw in the exhibit design allowed the cat to gain access to the keeper portion of the building.

1985

1986

zoo administration and education completed

Renovation of Park Pavilion to year round use as theatre and zoo administration and education completed.

Construction plans were put on hold while the City and the County carried on several years of study and negotiation to find a way to better fund the cultural facilities in the City.

Ostrich House Concession (renovation of ostrich exhibit).

1986

1987

Master Plan Revised

Zoo staff, Zoo Society Board, and architectural consultants revise Master Plan.

“Sam”, the bald eagle and Zoo’s oldest resident, dies.

1987

1988

Golden Eagle Aviary

Rare Geoffrey cats born.

Golden Eagle Aviary opens, donated by Peter Cook. 

1988

1989

Purchased by Kent County

Kent County purchased the Zoo and the Park.

1989

1990 - Chapter 6: The Zoo growing wild.

RendeZoo

1st RendeZoo held.

1990 - Chapter 6: The Zoo growing wild.

1991

Dinamation Exhibit

Zoo hosts Dinamation Exhibit with record attendance (415,000).

First eagle chick hatched from Betty and Jerry. The Zoo’s pair of bald eagles have produced five chicks over the years. All have been taken to the Dollywood Eagle Rehabilitation Center in Tennessee for release into the wild.

1991

1992

$20 million campaign for zoo master plan

Zoo Society announces $4 million in gifts to kick off a $20 million campaign to complete Phase II and III of the Zoo Master Plan including the aquarium, African hoof stock, hospital, eagle exhibit, new plaza area, concessions, elephant exhibit, and new front entry.

1992

1993

Maned wolf pups

Rare Maned wolf pups born.

1993

1994

Grizzly Bear

Zoo receives grizzly bear from Yellowstone.

1994

1995

Van Andel Living Shores Aquarium & Meijer Eagle exhibit

Van Andel Living Shores Aquarium, Meijer Eagle exhibit, and new plaza concessions opens. (Replaced old aquarium, conservatory, concessions, plaza, raccoon exhibit).

1995

1996

JUMP program for economically disadvantaged families

African Forest Edge Exhibit opens. This concluded Phase II of Master Plan.

Ruth Jones joins Zoo Society Board of Directors and helps launch the JUMP program for economically disadvantaged families. This program grew from 1000 participants to over 36.000 by 2015. In 1998, JUMP program receives National Association of Counties Achievement Award and award from Neighborhood Alliance.

1996

1999

Animal Hospital and Quarantine Facility opens.

Renovation of hilltop stone picnic pavilion, bathrooms, new park road and parking lot in upper park.

Project Receives an achievement award from Neighborhood Alliance.

Construction Begins on Chimpanzee Exhibit.

1999

2000

AZA Conservation award

Grand Rabbits Promotion.

Zoo receives AZA Conservation award for work with Wyoming Toads.

2000

2001 - Chapter 7: Experiencing the future.

Fred Meijer’s pledge for a new wildlife park

Peter and Pat Cook Mokomboso Valley Chimpanzee Exhibit opens.

The Master Plan was reviewed and revised in 2000-2001 and was approved by the County Commission in December. 

A local philanthropist, Fred Meijer, offered the Zoo 150 acres of land and a monetary pledge for a new wildlife park. This was explored and a vote of the citizens of Kent County in August of 2004 determined that the majority of the voters wanted the Zoo to continue to grow at its present location.

2001 - Chapter 7: Experiencing the future.

2002

Zoo Director, John Lewis, resigns

In June, Zoo Director, John Lewis, resigns to take Director position at LA Zoo and Brenda Stringer, Executive Director of the Zoo Society, was named Interim Zoo Director.

2002

2003

Moon Jellies

Moon Jellies Exhibit opens.

2003

2004

Year of the Dragon

Komodo Dragon Exhibit opens in the “Year of the Dragon” as a trail behind the aquarium for “dragons”. The Komodo Dragon received from National Zoo was one of the dragons born in first clutch hatched in USA.

New Vision for John Ball Zoo presented to Commission and approved.

Far Side Trail opens with walk through wallabies and budgies.

2004

2006

Stingray Lagoon

Stingray Lagoon opens.

2006

2007

First zip line in a Zoo

First zip line in a Zoo anywhere opens.

2007

2008

BISSELL Lions of Lake Manyara

BISSELL Lions of Lake Manyara opens.

2008

2009

First Winter Zoo Closing

Renovation of Spider Monkey Island completed.

Zoo closes for the first time in the winter.

2009

2010 - Chapter 8: The roar restored and beyond.

Zoo receives largest donation in its history

Mighty Mike arrives, a seasonal exhibit of an enormous alligator.

Zoo receives largest donation in its history, $5 million pledge from Bea Idema and Bill & Bea Idema Foundation. 

Zoo Society kicks off $12.5 million campaign.

Flamingo eggs from the Atlanta Zoo hatch at John Ball Zoo.

2010 - Chapter 8: The roar restored and beyond.

2011

John Ball Zoo Named the 4th most attended cultural facility in Michigan

Mighty Mike returns for a second season at the Zoo.

Crain’s Detroit Business names the Zoo the 4th most attended cultural facility in Michigan.

2011

2012

Zoo activities and bissell tree house

Zoo opens the new gift shop, Idema Funicular and Forest Realm, Bissell Tree House, and Central Services Building.

2012

2013

Zoo kicks off R.A.R.E. (Really Awesome, Really Endangered) promotion

Meijer Grizzly Bear and Jandernoa Treetop Outpost open in the Forest Realm.

County and Zoo Society form task force to move the Zoo to operation by non-profit.

Zoo kicks off R.A.R.E. (Really Awesome, Really Endangered) promotion which highlights an endangered species a day for 65 days. Promotion ends with visit from Joel Sartore, National Geographic fellow and photographer who photographed several of the Zoo’s endangered animals for his Photo Ark project.

2013

2014

Breaking Attendance Records!

Contract signed that transfers governance and operation of the Zoo to a non-profit entity.

Zoo Society changes its charter and name to John Ball Zoo.

County retains ownership of the Zoo’s property and continues to support the Zoo through a management fee.

Zoo opens the Crawford Tigers of the Realm and Forest Habitat, donated by Bill and Marilyn Crawford.

Zoo breaks all attendance records with 523,000 visitors.

Precious, the Zoo’s Komodo Dragon, passes away.

2014

2015

Wildlife Conservation Fund celebrates 30 years

Crawford Tigers of the Realm-River Habitat opens.

John Ball Zoo Wildlife Conservation Fund celebrates 30 years of providing grants to wildlife conservation projects around the world.

The Zoo receives the AZA Quarter Century Award for 25 years on continuous accreditation.

2015

2016

125 years of john ball zoo

The Zoo celebrates its 125 years of caring and conserving our wildlife and our environment. 
Check out our 125 events and ways to support the Zoo.

Farside Trail is renovated and made into Wild Way, a primate trail.

New Master Plan designed for the future growth of Zoo.

 

2016
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