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In 2016, John Ball Zoo celebrates its 125th year with 11 exhibits and unique zoo experiences. In many ways, the zoo's history is a reflection of most American zoos that were established in the Victorian era. Prior to this time in history, exotic animals were seen by the very wealthy during their travels. But when cities started constructing their own zoos in the late nineteenth century, people from all walks of life could partake in the varied and vast animal kingdom.

The evolution of zoos since the Victorian era can be characterized by what we have learned about how to care for exotic animals and the design of all exhibits. Visitor education became a major consideration, naturalistic design became a driving force, and animal conservation became the mission. The John Ball Zoo reflects that evolution and calls to mind its founder, John Ball. Photo: frank1crayon/Fotolia


»Zoo History

Zoo History


John Ball was a founding father of Grand Rapids and author of Born to Wander, a recounting of his travels from his New Hampshire birthplace to Oregon, to Tahiti, to South America and finally, Grand Rapids.

Ball was born in New Hampshire in 1794. He had a passion for traveling and after several careers, he joined the third expedition to Oregon when he was 39. He traveled on horseback across the country and to the Oregon Trail and landed at Fort Vancouver, where he was the first non-native American farmer and the first non-native American schoolteacher.

He arrived in 1836 in Grand Rapids to buy and sell property for those in the East. Among his pursuits after he settled here was to open a law office, serve as a state legislator, be on the first school board, and assist in establishing the public museum. He married Mary Webster, a young school teacher, and they had 10 children. When Ball was 77, his last child was born in Europe. This was where Ball brought his family for a few years so they could experience other cultures and other lands.

John Ball died in 1884 and in his will left 40 acres of land for public use to City of Grand Rapids. This gift was originally a park that led to the birth of a zoo.

If historians look back to 1891, they will see references to animals finding homes at "Ball 40," the name the locals gave to the park grounds Ball donated. A local newspaper reports that there was a small menagerie. Two aldermen purchased a pair of deer. That deer and buck were the beginning of a herd of deer that called the park home. John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan - Photo:

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»Zoo Exhibits

Zoo Exhibits


In Crawford Tigers of the Realm, the largest of the feline predators evokes awe. This solitary hunter roams the forests and you can see them right here on lower and upper realm of the tigers, as well as the trail system between. Their whereabouts might surprise you; you never know where they lurk.

At the Van Andel Living Shores Aquarium, visitors can see clearly into the lives of creatures that live in a stream in Michigan, on the Patagonia coast and your own northwest coast. Stingray Lagoon is just outside. Here, you may touch white spotted bamboo sharks and cow nose stingrays. (Outdoor conditions determine the hours of this exhibit.)

Pelican Pier is the first exhibit to be seen as you enter the zoo. View American White Pelicans and a pair of Bald Eagles.

In Treasure of the Tropics, visitors will come face to face with the vast diversity of amphibians and reptiles as well as small primates.

The Far Side of the World Trail is a wooded trail that features enticements for children, like pretending to ride on the raft of a pirate or ride on a barrel horse.(Seasonal dates of operation, dependent upon outdoor temperatures).

Red's Hobby Farm is an interactive children's zoo that features birds and domestic animals and is open for hands-on experiences daily June-Early September.

In Africa, you will find birds, mammals, and primates. In Mokomboso Valley, there are seven chimpanzees that roam 3.5 acres, one of the largest exhibits of its kind in the country. Bissell's Lions reside next door in Lake Manyara, another exhibit that is among the largest in the country. Catch a glimpse of the ground hornbill, Guinea baboon, warthog and others. Camel rides are also available.

North America is home to any number of beautiful creatures including grizzly bears and mountain lions.

On the other side of the equator, in South America, you'll see the Chilean flamingos, capybaras, saki monkeys, tapir and maned wolves.

Imagine an exhibit devoted to Frogs, where you'll see some50 toads, frogs, and salamanders covering 15 species.

The Idema Forest Realm can be accessed on foot orby the Idema Funicular. This is a gorgeous nature walk in the woods that winds through the back area of the John Ball Zoo to see the grizzly bears and maned wolves, and is home to the Crawford Tigers of the Realm. Visitors are encouraged to walk the entire trail to get the most from the experience, which includes TreeTops Outpost and Children's Nature Play Zones. You'll be rewarded at the end of the trail with a grand view of downtown. John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan - Photo:

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»Experiences & Dining

Experiences & Dining


Among the experiences at the zoo are the zipline, Sky Trail Ropes Course, funicular, camel rides, petting coral, Budgie Aviary, and Stingray Lagoon. All experiences are generally open during the summer, and visitors are encouraged to call after September 1 regarding hours of operation.

There are concession stands located throughout the zoo. Monkey Island Cafe provides snacks and lunch-inside or outside. Choices include hot dogs, burgers, chicken tenders, chicken wraps, and salad.

The Whistle Stop Cafe is across from the Petting Zoo. Enjoy premium hand-dipped ice cream in 15 flavors. And there are panini sandwiches with kettle chips.

Tiger Paws Pizza is situated just across from Tiger Exhibit and the Lion's Den is across from the Lion Exhibit.

1300 W. Fulton St., Grand Rapids, MI 49504 website, Phone: 616 336-4301

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John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan