JACK, the bear

Brown Bear

As far as we know, Jack was the first bear to live at John Ball Zoo and we think he arrived in 1894. This guess is based on an article in the Grand Rapids Press dated April 12, 1895. The headline reads “Bruin Wakes Up…John Ball Parks’ Bear Begins Calling for his favorite dram”. It seems Ol’ Jack had a drinking problem. Back in the 1890’s animals living in captivity were still very much a novelty. Not much was known about their nutritional needs or their husbandry. Apparently beer was what ol’ Jack liked and its what people gave him along with soda pop, peanuts, and candy. 

In the article members of the Parks Committee were complaining because they didn’t have enough money to build a cave with an elegant grated front for the bruin’s summer residence. The reporter comments that they “should consult the wishes of the bear, he would probably file a petition stating that he can worry along in his present pen for awhile, but very regular calls from the beer wagon would be acceptable during the heated term.”

In 1895 the city fathers found Ol’ Jack a bride. A local citizen was willing to donate a “handsome cinnamon colored bride” named Nancy if an exhibit would be built. The city fathers believed a companion of good habits such as the bruin’s proposed bride is known to possess would wean him from his dissipated ways. The exhibit was built and the bride arrived.

Probably the most ridiculous tale about Jack was reported in the Press on Sept. 25, 1895. A delegation from Traverse City arrived to celebrate its acceptance as a city in the state of Michigan. The newspaper reported the day’s events and speculated as to who had the most fun—Jack or the folks from Traverse City.

The bear had all he could drink for once and was certainly the happiest member of the bruin family in the State; but the Traverse City people certainly had all they could eat and drink and smoke yesterday afternoon, and had the fun of watching the bear drink “his’n” besides; so that on the whole it is probably the Queen City people had a little better of it.

On September 25, 1895, Jack the Bear climbed out of his cage, a chase ensued, and Jack escaped into the darkness of the park. Park workers spotted the hole he had dug to spend the night. They decided to leave him alone and come back at daybreak when they could see. The next morning, Jack is gone when they return. They set out combing the park when Jack jumped from behind a bush and confronts one of the workers just 3 feet away. The workers had been told to take him alive unless he became dangerous. The worker tripped backwards and Jack rushed him. Two other workers fired and Jack dropped.

Jack had been a big favorite for the zoo goers who loved throwing him peanuts. So much of a favorite that the mayor proposed putting the flag at city hall at half-mast. After some discussion, the council felt that given the circumstances of Jack’s dissolute lifestyle that probably wasn’t appropriate.

After Jack and during the first half of the century, black bears were the predominant bear species at the Zoo. In 1948 we know two black bears arrived ironically named Whitey and Snowball. In 1950 they had cubs. It’s during this time that there are references to a pair of Himalayan bears being in the animal collection. Again in 1957, a second pair of black bear cubs were born.

In 1958, a new bear exhibit was proposed. Mr. X provide the funding and construction began. The new exhibit opened in 1959 to much fanfare. For the first time the Zoo was getting a pair of polar bears. The exciting new animals were brought via a Danish ship from Copenhagen to New York City. From there the bears were flown to Detroit where they were driven by truck and a police escort to Grand Rapids.

Apparently because the black bear cubs were still too small for the large new moated exhibit, the Himalayan bears took up residence opposite the polar bears in the new exhibit. The Himalayan bears didn’t have a chance at being the favorites as the polar bears were an instant success with the zoo visitors. Later when the black bear cubs were larger the Himalayan and black bears were switched. 

In 1968 the male polar bear died at over 20 years of age. The female was about 14 years old at the time. The Senior Class of 1968 and the North End Kiwanis Club helped to fund a new male named Saga. Saga passed away in 1976 and the Himalayan bears moved back into the exhibit. By then the Marine Mammal Act was in place and the exhibit no longer met the requirements for polar bears. The Zoo choose not to move forward with obtaining other polar bears. 

Our current bears are two different sub-species of brown bears. Our male Yogi, is a grizzly and our female, Boo Boo, is an Alaskan peninsular brown bear. Yogi is a poster child for problem bears in Yellowstone. At only two years old, he was on his own. Soon he began scavenging campsites and taking food from tourists. He was caught and relocated several times but just couldn’t seem to stay away from people. Then he had too many strikes against him, he was brought by wildlife officials to John Ball Zoo in 1998. The female was a very young orphan when she started hanging around a cannery in Alaska. It was an easy place to find food but a dangerous place for her survival. Workers at the cannery notified state wildlife officials who captured her. The Alaska Zoo notified us and she was flown to her new home here. The Zoo doesn’t breed brown bears as there are always “problem” bears that need a good home. In 2013, the bear exhibit was totally renovated thanks to the Meijer Family Foundation.



Like the tigers, lions came late in the history of John Ball Zoo. Ramu, a male lion arrived on November 2, 1970. His appearance was courtesy of a donation from the Downtown Lions Club. Lady, the female, came to the Zoo in April of 1971. Ramu would become a symbol for the Zoo Society when the Board declared 1977 the Year of the Lion. At that time the Society began to use Ramu as their logo. Their entire annual fund campaign was dedicated to raising money to build an appropriate home for Ramu and Lady. 

Bonnie Marris, a young wildlife artist from Grand Rapids, helped with the fundraising effort. Bonnie painted a magnificent portrait of Ramu and issued a limited edition of prints made from the portrait. Monies raised by the sale of the prints went to help build the lions a new home. Bonnie, who went on to earn a degree in zoology and in animal behavior, did a lot of sketching and painting of John Ball Zoo animals during this time. She went on to become a renowned wildlife artist who has used her work to help fundraising efforts for conservation programs around the world.

Ramu also added to his fame by being the first of the Zoo’s animals to get a root canal. He broke his upper canine in 1982 and badly needed dental work and a cap. Dwight Monsma, a local dentist and husband of a Zoo volunteer, donated his time and Davis Lab donated their services. The Zoo had no animal hospital then so Ramu was transported to Dr. Richard Bennett’s (the Zoo’s consulting veterinarian) clinic for the procedure. Ramu’s root canal made a splash with the media and many visitors would try to spot his silver canine in the following years. Ramu died of age related illness in the summer of 1988 and Lady passed away in the fall.

In October of 1989 the Zoo received three young lions, a male and two females. They came to the Zoo from the Buffalo Zoo and their names were Spencer, Gilda, and Sade. In 1997 Sade joined a lion group at the Wildlife Safari, Inc. in Oregon. Spencer passed away in 2003 and Gilda in 2005 both from age related disease.

After Spencer and Gilda were gone, the Zoo determined not to bring any new lions in until there was a new more expansive exhibit. In 2007, Mark and Cathy Bissell and Bissell Inc. made that possible by becoming lead donors on the Lions of Lake Manyara exhibit. At the ground breaking, Mark Bissell explained why they wanted to help. “This is such a great place for families in the community. We wanted to be a part of the transformation of John Ball Zoo. We know it is one of the most widely used community assets, visited by hundreds of thousands of people each year.” 

In 2008 the community welcomed the opening of the new exhibit and its three new occupants. Docha, the male, was born in 2005 at the Santa Barbara Zoo. The then two year old came in weighing a healthy 420 lbs. The two females were sisters from the San Diego Zoo both born in 2006. Bakari, which means noble promise, was the more timid of the two siblings and Abena, which means born on Tuesday, was the more aggressive of the two. As one keeper said at the time, “She’s a true lioness with quite a temper.”

In 2012 a second male lion, Kiume, joined the group. Kiume was previously at the Milwaukee County Zoo. All four currently reside in the Lions of Lake Manyara exhibit. Generally the sisters can be seen together or one of the males. There is an outdoor exercise attached to the holding building which allows for the group to rotate outside and in.


MIGHTY MIKE, the alligator

“HE’S HERE AND HE’S MIGHTY” was the headline on May 18, 2010 when John Ball Zoo welcomed a 13-foot, 800-pound alligator. Mighty Mike took up residence for the summer in one of the waterfowl pools near the Zoo entrance. Mighty Mike was the largest alligator north of Florida at 13 feet, 1 inch in length and weighs in at 800 pounds. He visited the Zoo as a special exhibit and was so popular the Zoo brought him back a second summer.

Mighty Mike had been captured in Lake Talquin, west of Tallahassee, Florida. He was reported to the Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission as a nuisance animal because he had been frequenting a local public boat dock. 

Mighty Mike’s exhibit also included some smaller alligators. The Zoo’s education department used baby alligators as part of their outreach educational programs to talk about the importance of alligators. 


PRECIOUS, the Komodo dragon

December 18, 2003 was a pretty exciting day for the animal management staff at John Ball Zoo. That was the day zookeepers Dan Malone and Paul Suplinskas returned from a three day trip from the National Zoo in Washington DC. They were bringing back the newest addition to the JBZ animal collection – the Komodo dragon, Precious.

Almost 11 years later, John Ball Zoo officials sadly announced that Precious passed away peacefully in his sleep. He died of natural causes. Precious spent half of his life here at John Ball Zoo, bringing joy to zoo guests.

During President Reagan’s visit to Bali in 1986, he was presented with a pair of Komodo dragons by the people of Indonesia. The pair were housed in the National Zoo of Washington D.C. and in 1992 produced 13 eggs that represented the first Komodo dragons hatched in this hemisphere. Precious was the smallest of this first clutch. 

Zookeepers that worked with Precious found him “personable” and “friendly” but they respected him for what he was – a skilled predator. Komodo dragons are considered the most intelligent of the reptiles. Precious responded positively to a variety of behavioral enrichment and regularly participated in training program with his keepers. He even willingly took exercise walks on a leash up and down the hallway of the herpetarium.

Komodo Dragons were believed to be mythical animals by most Westerners until a Dutch scientist officially described them in 1912. Also called “land crocodiles” Komodo Dragons are the largest reptiles reaching 300 pounds and 10’ in length. 

Precious was always a magical beast for the staff and the Zoo visitors. At our 2013 Members Night, we held a birthday party for our favorite Komodo. The crowd filled the herpetarium to watch him open his present and sing “Happy Birthday”. He was a dragon with a lot of charisma.



Tigers came rather late to the Zoo when the original pair arrived in 1969. Tanya and Tonka’s arrival set off plans for building an expanded tiger exhibit. The pair was housed in a hastily renovated former raccoon grotto when they first arrived. The need for a new exhibit grew to be a priority when they had a litter of three cubs. One male and two females were born in April of 1973. One of female’s had complications and was not expected to live. Tiny, as she was named, did survive after a month of care at Michigan State University’s small animal veterinary clinic and additional care when she returned to Grand Rapids. The other two cubs were named Natasha and Nicoli.

In May of 1974, the Zoo Society announced that a local truck firm founder and his family would donate a new Asia habitat for the tigers. The donors were Dallas Darling, his son Dan, and grandson John. This would be the first large mammal exhibit at the Zoo with glass viewing.

On opening the exhibit, Fred Meyer the Zoo Director said, “This exhibit helps perpetuate tigerdom. Tigers will fall victim to creeping civilization in Asia as early as ten years from now.” Meyer was absolutely correct when he predicted this in 1974. By the 1990’s tigers in the wild numbered less than 6,000 and today estimates are closer to 3,200.

On the morning of August 20th 1978, zoo keepers were surprised to find that Tanya had given birth to two female cubs. The mother rejected the cubs and zoo staff pulled them from the den to hand raise. The cubs weighed two pounds. They were given the names Katherine and Alexandra. The cubs were quite a hit and even appeared on the local TV show, The Buck Matthews Show. They also starred in sketches and prints produced by Bonnie Marris.

Tanya and Tonka had a third cub in 1979 named Natalya. All of these tigers lived out their lives at the Zoo.

In April of 1993 we received a male named Urod from Indianapolis Zoo. In January of 1994 the Zoo received a female named Katarina from the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo in Colorado. They had a litter of two cubs in 1998. A male and a female named Mikhail and Nicole. When they were two years old they were moved to the Washington Park Zoo in Portland, Oregon. Breeding recommendations sent Katarina to the Denver Zoo in 2002 and John Ball Zoo received a female from Detroit named Krapinka. Urod passed away in 2006 and Krapinka went to the Roosevelt Park Zoo in North Dakota in 2009.

If you are wondering why the animals moved from zoo to zoo, all the animals were part of the Species Survival Plan. The SSP is a national program which tracks the genetics and diversity of a species. Animals in the SSP don’t really belong to one zoo, they belong to all who are participating in the program. This means there are recommendations made on an annual basis for breeding and location. This helps to keep the species healthy and diverse.

Tigers returned to John Ball Zoo in 2014 with the opening of the Crawford Tigers of the Realm exhibit.

Yuri & Kuza, two young brothers, weighing in at 460 lbs each came to the Zoo from Rosamond Gifford Zoo in Syracuse, NY. They were 3 years old when they arrived. Nika, the female, completes the Zoo’s current trio of Amur tigers. She is older being 8 years old when she came here from Potter Park Zoo in Lansing.

The Tigers of the Realm exhibit has two habitats connected by a trail. The upper habitat is a forested habitat with a small pool. There are two primary viewing locations for this habitat. One location is a large window under a partially covered pergola structure that will allow for nose-to-nose viewing of the tigers. The second viewing location is at two railings that allow for visitors to view the animals through woven-wire mesh. We want the visitors to feel as if they are walking through a forest and the exhibit has been placed there amongst the existing landscape with minimal additional plantings or fabrication.

Our second habitat is a smaller, river habitat that allows for close viewing tigers. The viewing area for visitors is covered by a roof and the habitat has more rockwork and underwater viewing created for visitors and the animals. Unlike most cats, Amur tigers are very good swimmers and will frequently spend time in the water. The two habitats are connected by a trail that travels alongside a raised wooden boardwalk that visitors travel as they venture between the habitats and into the Forest Realm. This trail is used to move cats periodically and also allow for additional exhibit space for either habitat when desired. This boardwalk allows visitors to gently ascend through the trees into the Forest Realm. Visitors on the boardwalk while tigers are on the trail will feel as if the tigers are walking the trail with them.


Zoella, the elephant

Zoella, an Indian elephant, was the only elephant the Zoo ever had. The idea of bringing an elephant into the collection began in June of 1964. Visitors seemed to really want to have an elephant at John Ball Zoo. School children began collecting money to bring an elephant to the Zoo. The Shriners got involved and pledged to help fund the addition. There were sales, events, and fundraisers and eventually the money was raised.

An elephant was located and the twelve year old arrived at the Zoo on June 16, 1965. One of the first orders of business was to name her. A contest was held and the name “Zooella” was selected. What many people never knew was that she had come to the Zoo with the name Gayle. The Keepers continued to use that name for training and husbandry throughout her life.

In 1978, Zoella’s long time keeper and trainer, Harry Maxim, fell ill. Harry left the Zoo on sick leave. Zooella began to have temper tantrums and at times became violent with zoo staff. She wouldn’t allow other zoo keepers to care for her. Only Harry’s helper was somewhat tolerated. The Zoo began to see if they could place her at another zoo where she could become part of a group of elephants.

On April 4, 1978 Zoella collapsed onto her side. Zoo officials suspected a stroke, infection, or brain tumor. The Zoo vet and others worked to get her to her feet. They consulted with other zoos, gave her fluids, and did many examinations to try to determine the problem. They were rushing because they knew if she did not get up within a few days they would lose her.

Her former keeper, Harry, falling sick himself, came back to the Zoo to sit with his old friend. “Before I left, she followed me around like a hound, “Maxim said. “She knew I was sick.” The community worried and debated her fate. Harry said of his last visit, “She knew it was me. She reacted to my voice, but the only movement was in her trunk and in her eyes.”

Finally on April 7 after losing 1000 of her 6000 lbs. the decision was made to euthanize her. Harry was there with her. The community mourned the loss.