Settled into the hills deep on the northwest side of Grand Rapids, it’s sometimes easy to forget about John Ball Zoo.
Last year, John Ball Zoo drew 600,000 visitors, and yet more than 200,000 came from outside Kent County. Once the zoo opens on March 24, CEO Peter D’Arienzo said this year’s goal is to reach 700,000 or more visitors — and there’s a good reason for the optimistic growth outlook.
This spring, John Ball Zoo is set to open its new pygmy hippo exhibit, the first exhibition space the zoo has built immediately adjacent to the entrance. It is one of fewer than 20 zoos working on the pygmy hippo survival plan, helping ensure the species’ survival in the wild.
“We’re moving animals down to the front of the zoo, where they haven’t historically been,” said Tim Sampson, curator and dive safety officer at John Ball Zoo. “But having an exhibit of this caliber when you walk in, you’re impacted by the animals as soon as you come in the gates. And there’s future plans to add more down the road.”
The two pygmy hippos, one coming from Pittsburgh and another from Canada, will hopefully become a breeding pair in the future. Along with the hippos, the exhibit will also feature a pair of white storks and sitatunga, a hoofed animal from similar areas in Africa as the hippos. Eventually, the zoo could add additional hoof stock and fish.
The exhibit will feature a large day room for the hippos, as well as a sizable outdoor yard. It will even include a shower the hippos can activate when they want to be wet. The way the exhibit is set up will allow visitors to be face-to-face with the hippos and will also set up a perfect view for when the hippos get the “zoomies,” similar to how dogs behave with excess energy.
For those who think zoos are inhumane, it’s important to note there’s no going back. D’Arienzo said the long answer would conclude zoos shouldn’t exist, but in short, they’re here and incredibly important to support for the betterment of the Earth.
“Zoos exist to save animals from extinction,” D’Arienzo said. “We save wildlife through restorative conservation work, that’s the key word. We’re not a wildlife sanctuary, we’re not a nature conservancy. John Ball Zoo exists at the intersection of wildlife and society.”
There are approximately 2,800 animal exhibitors registered with the United States Department of Agriculture but less than 10% of zoos are accredited with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums.
John Ball Zoo is one of six accredited zoos in Michigan, along with Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek; Detroit Zoological Park in Royal Oak; Potter Park Zoological Gardens in Lansing, Saginaw Children’s Zoo in Saginaw; and Sea Life Michigan Aquarium in Auburn Hills.
At John Ball Zoo, there are more than 2,400 animals representing more than 200 species, ranging from big cats and bears to frogs and insects.
The zoos are focused on ensuring animals are safe and happy and as close to their natural state as possible. For example, John Ball Zoo has an animal enrichment manager charged with ensuring every animal is stimulated and their mental health needs are met.
AZA accredited zoos are key in helping restore wildlife populations that reach endangered levels. John Ball Zoo participates in 50 survival plans and, in a lot of ways, it’s not directly involved with the animals. Instead, AZA zoos also work to create conditions for the animals to thrive.
“It’s not about protecting what’s left, it’s about how to create conditions for them to thrive,” D’Arienzo said.
Habitat destruction is the top reason driving species toward extinction. John Ball Zoo is part of a clean burning stove project to save the Red Panda, a species in Nepal with dwindling numbers in the wild.
The Nepalese cut down wood to stay warm and cook food, and D’Arienzo said the Nepalese cannot be blamed because they are simply surviving. Beyond destroying the Red Panda’s habitat, particulate matter inhalation is also the No. 1 killer in Nepal.
“If we can provide clean burning stoves, people want them because it burns efficiently, they use 10-times less wood, and because it uses less trees, it’s saving the habitat,” D’Arienzo said. “We want to drive awareness that solve an environmental issue. We do our work through sustainability, we protect the environment, wild places and wild animals.”
In Africa, John Ball Zoo participates in a program that pays locals to disarm and gather animal traps. The locals turn the traps into art, in which the organization pays more for the art than meat or parts from the illegally caught animal could fetch.
In Michigan, the zoo works to help save the Poweshiek skipperling, a once-common butterfly in the Midwest that has seen numbers dwindle to likely just a few hundred in the wild. This winter was the second the zoo helped house caterpillars for the species, with more than 500 wintering in the zoo.
John Ball Zoo is also working to help encourage breeding among its big cat species. There are two tigers, inexperienced when it comes to breeding, and the zookeepers are allowing the tigers to figure out how to make a cub.
Likewise, the zoo brought in a female snow leopard earlier this year to join a male leopard as they approach breeding age. The species was greatly affected by the COVID-19 virus and a large number of captive snow leopards did not survive. Sampson, the zoo’s curator, said the two leopards that could eventually breed are really important to the global snow leopard population.
Also inside the zoo walls, D’Arienzo said it strives to be a sustainability leader at national and international levels.
“The new pygmy hippo exhibit puts an exclamation point on the zoo’s sustainability dream,” said Allmon Forrester, John Ball Zoo director of facilities, planning and sustainability. “John Ball Zoo has long been a leader in the zoo world in terms of sustainability, but the hippo exhibit is the first time the zoo is really making a public statement,” he said.
“Here at the zoo, we’ve been building ‘green’ a long time, but we’ve never put a plaque on the wall,” said Forrester, who was recognized in 2018 as Conservation Member of the Year by the Aquarium & Zoo Facilities Association. “We’ve changed the paradigm to tell our story better.”
The real push began with the meerkat exhibit, which was finished in 2020. The exhibit is the first zoo in the world to receive a SITES Gold certification. The certification recognizes landscapes, site infrastructure and spaces demonstrating sustainability in planning, design, construction and maintenance.
Beginning now with the new exhibits at the front, the zoo will continue to push toward a more sustainable future.
“What we want to do with the whole front entry, we want to be more bold,” he said, explaining how LEED was an incredible challenge when it started more than two decades ago and is now nearly standard. Now, it’s moving toward the Living Building Challenge.
“It was started by the guys and glass in the LEED world who were big into that, and it wasn’t going far enough,” Forrester said. “In general, LEED helps reduce damage and LBC tries to restore damage that’s been done.”
LBC limits the products that can be used, those that harm the environment, like PVC pipes. For the hippo exhibit, John Ball Zoo built a 35,000-gallon filtration system without PVC pipes.
Forrester detailed the work John Ball Zoo is doing to reuse stormwater, rather than sending it out to the Grand River and up to Lake Michigan. While the zoo has to work with the city to fully realize its goals, it hopes to eventually use the water to flush toilets and even use it in the hippo exhibit to be water neutral.
“Is it a wise use of dollars? Probably not, but if we can get people to think about why we would take water, throw it back out there only to grab it back, then we can fall on the sword,” Forrester said. “Maybe there are simpler things about how we think about gray water. It’s so available and cheap, no one thinks about the effort to reuse water, but 20% of the world’s fresh water is around our state, let’s protect it as much as we can.
“I consider myself a meat and potato tree hugger, not a granola tree hugger. We care about the nature and the outside, so instead of having everyone overregulate, how do we encourage better choices?”
The distinctive push to be more mindful with water is to help show visitors how important water is to the world and how conservation of the natural resource is vital.
“It’s how water connects us all and what does it mean to wildlife and the human condition,” D’Arienzo said. “We live in the Great Lakes State, there is so much water while there are so many places that don’t have enough water. But it’s not just about having water, it’s the quality of the water.
“We’re trying to connect the dots that if it’s good for wildlife, it’s good for society. We’re all sharing this giant blue ball and it matters what we do with it. We try to give specific examples of simple choices that improve the state of wildlife, and at the same time be economical.”
The new exhibits are geothermal powered, and the John Ball Zoo storm water system saves 38 million gallons per year. The entire 10,000-square-foot pygmy hippo exhibit is heated and cooled by the geothermal power.
With the pygmy hippo exhibit nestled in the front of the zoo, the zoo also worked to lower the slope of the 800-foot gain heading toward the rest of the exhibits, which Forrester said they wanted to make more accessible to the public.
D’Arienzo said while achieving the zoo’s mission of restorative conservation, they also work to provide Grand Rapidians with quality of life.
“It’s a safe place to have wholesome fun and learn about wildlife,” D’Arienzo said.
Back to the zoo’s visitors and the more than 200,000 who come from outside of Kent County: D’Arienzo said in a world where so many pieces of an economy are outsourced, a zoo can be a community asset and economic driver. It’s a total of $92 million in economic impact to the Grand Rapids community.
“Investment in the zoo is an investment in the community,” D’Arienzo said, adding that when there was a national competition for Amazon’s second headquarters, a “monstrous” questionnaire was sent out with a “Tell us about your zoo” section.
“A company’s employees want to work in communities with things to do,” he continued. “All great cities have great zoos. The zoo is a physical location, it has ripple effects, direct and indirect activity. If we build an exhibit, every major exhibit we set a target to be in the top 10% of zoos. We have to give a reason for people to come.”
Regionally, it’s easy to compare John Ball Zoo to the Indianapolis Zoo, Detroit Zoo and Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, and those are the zoos D’Arienzo said he is ready to compare his organization to. And in the grand scheme of tourism, John Ball Zoo adds to the overall density of attractions in West Michigan.
Afterall, more people go to U.S. zoos than the combined crowds of baseball, hockey, football and basketball games each year.
“We have this density of amazing things, and when you get a high enough density, that’s when you get someone else’s attention, that’s why the aquarium project is important,” D’Arienzo said, speaking of the potential aquarium project that could end up next to the Grand River downtown. “If we grow enough density, then it isn’t just about the zoo or aquarium to draw a family for a vacation from, say, Texas. But it’s the zoo, the Grand Rapids Public Museum, Grand Rapids Whitewater, Meijer Gardens. It’s, ‘Let’s go to the zoo, stop at the beach, grab a beer.’
“That drives the economy.”
In 2023, John Ball Zoo will be open to the public from March 24 – November 19.