Day 5: John Ball Zoo

When I was a child, I wanted to adopt every animal I saw, no matter if that animal already had an owner or not. Throughout my childhood, I had two hamsters, two lizards, one turtle, one bird, two cats, and countless fish. I dreamed of carrying around a monkey on my shoulder and housing a killer whale in my backyard swimming pool. I loved animals.

I think children especially connect with animals. They want to take care of them, nurture them, love them. It’s a basic human need, to be connected with animals. As we get older, though, we get a little more sensible and more responsible about what kinds of animals we can take care of. But I feel like that love, that connection doesn’t ever really die. People often have pets and claim that those pets are valued members of their family.

I suppose that explains why people love zoos so much. It brings us back to that love, that connection we feel for all animals, not just the sensible ones who make good pets. There seems to be a zoo in every major city, and Grand Rapids is no exception. In my 13 years of living here, I have been to John Ball Zoo on many occasions, and it’s a great park. It is small enough to see everything in a couple of hours but big enough to house some interesting animals. It’s got a lot of trees that are great for shade and give it a secluded feel to help you forget about the nearby city and focus more on the natural habitat where these animals would otherwise be found.

It’s been a while since I’ve visited, I will admit. But this week, a Grand Rapidian-turned-Seattleite who happens to be a dear friend of mine is visiting, and she said she had never been to the zoo, so what better excuse to revisit a city staple than to take a first-timer?

When rediscovering the zoo, I found that what makes John Ball Zoo different is how interactive it can be. It helps that my visiting friend has a seize-the-opportunity attitude, so when I asked her if she wanted to go pet the farm animals or enter the cage where they keep the budgie birds, her answer was always in the affirmative. These exhibits allowed us to get up close and personal with the animals. I actually got caught in the middle of a three-way goat head-butting. These animals are so used to people being around that they went about their normal business right next to the visiting humans. They weren’t scared of us; in fact, they hardly seemed to notice us.

Is it healthy for animals to react this way towards humans? I would say it’s not UNhealthy. Humans and animals having a trusting relationship, even if it may be unnatural, seems positive to me, especially when those animals rely on humans to take care of them.

And from what I can tell of the John Ball Zoo Keepers, they do an excellent job of not only taking care of the animals but interacting with them as well. We made it to the aquarium just as staff were feeding the penguins. A woman sat in the habitat with handfuls of fish, feeding the penguins who crowded in front of her. Every now and again, she would toss a handful of morsels into the water for the others to fight over. When a little boy asked her if she knew which penguins were which, she easily identified each by its name with a finger point: Fernando, Herbie, Octavia. One little penguin played with her boot when she stuck it in the water, swimming around it and nibbling on it; the penguin maneuvered itself on top of the boot, and the staff person flicked the penguin up in the air. The penguin splashed into the pool and then swam back over to the boot to be flung again.

This human and these penguins have a relationship with each other, a healthy relationship that involves trust. The penguin who played with her boot trusted her to not kick him in a way that would injure him; he could trust the staff person to play with him without causing him harm.

When I was visited the zoo a couple years ago with my cousin, we were watching the chimpanzees relaxing in their habitat. All of a sudden, one chimpanzee got up, grabbed a piece of poop from the ground and came running in our direction. Well aware that apes are known for flinging poop, we backed up from the railing with fear in our eyes. Luckily, the chimp didn’t have very good aim, and the feces went more up in the air than out at us.

“That poop was meant for me,” we heard someone say behind us. We turned around and there was a staff person standing there. “I gave him a shot earlier, and he’s still mad at me about it,” she continued.

The way she phrased this seemed odd to me, as though she was normally friends with the chimp but now he was upset with her and not talking to her and flinging poop at her. But she was confident the chimp would get over it and they could be friends again. Perhaps even the chimp knew that the zookeeper was only trying to help and not harm him. Their connection seemed to resemble the same connection shared among human friends.

John Ball Zoo really celebrates these human-animal relationships. They appreciate their animals and respect them as individuals with personalities and emotions. And the zookeepers are really passionate about what they do and want to educate the zoo’s visitors about who these animals really are. Visiting John Ball Zoo helps you connect again to that desire to love and nuture all animals.

For more information about John Ball Zoo, visit their website