John Ball Zoo celebrates 125 years in 2016

john ball zoo logoBy Lizzie Lemur

Additional reporting by Ziggy Zebra


Ah, the Gilded Age. The Gay Nineties. The Mauve Decade. As one waxes nostalgic about the 1890s (easy to do if you didn’t live through them), one tends to forget that in that same decade, the Panic of 1893 sparked a severe depression throughout the country, and crime and poverty were pervasive. There were also many strikes in the industrial workforce.


Things in Grand Rapids mirrored those of the country. But the people of Grand Rapids had at least one respite — a gift bequeathed to the city by an influential personage, John Ball, upon his death in 1884 — forty acres fondly called Ball 40, where John Ball Zoo (JBZ) currently stands.


1 John Ball with his last child
Old guy with a baby. Oh, wait… that’s John Ball!

A pioneer from Hebron, New Hampshire, John Ball (1794-1884) studied and traveled extensively throughout the United States before settling in Kent County and serving in the Michigan legislature, representing West Michigan. He never left West Michigan and is buried in Fulton Street Cemetery, the oldest graveyard in Grand Rapids.


In the beginning, people used the land as a park. In 1890, the Common Council declared that it would be called John Ball Park, and a conservatory and greenhouses graced the grounds.


Historical records indicate that animals were kept beginning around 1891, and Ball 40 became home to raccoons, fox squirrels, rabbits, a woodchuck and two deer (added later in the year, thanks to two aldermen who gave a portion of their salaries to purchase the buck and doe to start a herd). Owls, hawks, a crow and an eagle also called Ball 40 their home.


John Ball Zoo-early zoo exhibits

Notably, there were no lemurs or zebras.


But what’s a zoo without a bear, and “Ol’ Jack” was added to the menagerie in 1894. The following year, a bride for Jack the Bear came on board. Jack escaped the zoo in 1897. He didn’t say why, but legend has it that the bride’s disposition wasn’t all that sunny.


More animals were added each year, and in 1903, Park Day became a city tradition. Workers got a half day off and all the city parks would open on the same day. Band concerts, speeches and just strolling along provided amusement.


john ball zoo installing statueOver the years, the following things happened:


In 1909, a reporter played music from a Victrola in front of various animals. It is said that the animals enjoyed this, but individual responses were not noted. We’re here to say that enjoyment is relative and depends on the music being played and the personal tastes of the animals. We would not jump to the conclusion that animals enjoyed any Victrola recording.


The John Ball statue was installed and dedicated in 1925. (And we ask, what took them so darn long? After all, a gift of 40 acres is not a mere trifle. Nor is it measly.)


Charles Lindbergh spoke to throngs of admirers at the park in 1927. Guess what his speech was about. (Hint: Charles’s mind was on one thing and one thing only.)


Hard times hit in 1930, and some of the animals were taken to other zoos during the Depression. Only a small group of animals remained.



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.


Help JBZ celebrate this special birthday

Sponsor one of its 125 days of animal birthdays or become a member (you’ll get unlimited free admission and many other perks!). JBZ also offers a wild place to hold your next event with a variety of indoor and outdoor venues. Go here for more info.

Want to learn more about JBZ? Visit the website here.