As any traveler knows even the best planned trips can be negatively impacted by that uncontrollable adversary known as Mother Nature. We had planned out a road trip to explore the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan during my children’s Spring Break from school. The weather forecasts had been showing a nice weekend full of sunny skies and fifty-degree days leading up to our visit.
Alas the day our family headed over to the zoo we faced cloudy skies, blustery winds, below freezing temperatures and snow flurries. Because of other commitments in the area, we went ahead with our plans to explore the John Ball Zoo anyways though. Sometimes you just have to make the best out of situations that you don’t have control of. Especially when that involves the weather!
Grand Rapids is the largest city on the western side of the state of Michigan with a population of around 200,000 people that is home to a small zoo that is a nice fit for a community of this size. It is named after a 19th century lawyer and politician named John Ball who played an important role in developing the city and donated the parkland the zoo sits on. Despite its smaller size, I have to say this zoo contains quite a few exotic animals and some nice exhibits that provide some excellent close up views of the creatures that live there.
As you enter the driveway approaching this zoo, the first thing that comes into view is the city’s beloved Nessie statue. Originally a winner of the city’s famed annual ArtPrize competition, this statue of the Loch Ness Monster was moved from being displayed in the Grand River within sight of the downtown’s shoreline to be preserved in a pond situated in front of the entrance to the zoo. It is an unexpected sight to behold while circling the pond to make your way to the zoo’s parking lot.
My kids were excited to see the zoo’s collection of big cats while we were there. The John Ball Zoo has some impressive habitat layouts that provide the opportunity to get a face-to-face look at cougars, lions, tigers, and snow leopards. Unfortunately, due to the weather, none of these animals were let outside to see. So instead my son and daughter challenged each other to see who might be able to jump as high as one of the zoo’s big cats. Neither of them was able to launch themselves as high in the air as a snow leopard can, the kids found out they were more in the range of a cricket frog when it comes to jumping off the ground. Instead of being disappointed though, they were impressed that frogs could actually get up in the air as high as 3 feet.
It turned out that while the zoo opens in March after shutting down for the winter in November many of the outdoor activities and exhibits are closed until June. These include a walk-through aviary full of colorful Budgie birds from Australia, camel rides, Red’s Hobby Farm that provides petting corral and interactive experiences revolving around farm animals, a bird show featuring live trained performances by ten species of birds including a bald eagle, seriema and raven, as well as a rope obstacle course and zip line. Just as the big cats weren’t out to see, you’ll probably also miss out on getting a glimpse of spider monkeys on Monkey Island along with other animals from warm weather environments such as antelopes and warthogs when there are cold temperatures outside. Ironically, the weather didn’t faze a number of pelicans that were out to welcome us as we first walked in the entrance gate.
While at this point it may seem that our trip was a bust that wasn’t exactly the case. We essentially had the place to ourselves so that opened up several fun opportunities for us that might not have been possible to enjoy on a more crowded day. There are a few indoor exhibits that are enjoyable to explore no matter what the weather is outdoors along with animals that did venture outside because the cold weather wasn’t a big deal to them.
For example, the zoo’s resident otter loved the cold weather and was very active in its outdoor habitat. My kids spent nearly a half hour having races with it back and forth in front of a glass display window. It was amazing how interested this little critter was in interacting with people. My kids were all smiles playing around with this otter.
We also had some great interactions with a troop of chimpanzees that came right up to a viewing area within their habitat to say hello to us. The John Ball Zoo’s 3.5 acre chimpanzee habitat features seven of the animals and is one of the largest exhibits in the United States. It includes an indoor area where you can see the chimpanzees even in cold weather from literally just inches away from them. One came right up to the viewing window and started showing off a collection of balls it had gathered. Then another chimpanzee came up and started mimicking me. The kids really got a laugh out of that!
Next, we ventured through a building called Treasures of the Tropics. It was filled with animals that live in tropical regions from across the world. The space is filled with a variety of amphibians, insects, monkeys, reptiles and other creatures. On a cold day this is a nice reprise from the outside weather with plenty of interesting things to discover inside.
Our last stop was the aquarium. This really is an amazing building that starts off with an inside cut-away view of a waterfall running down a hill alongside its outside. There are some really big fish native to Michigan’s waterways lurking about here. I wouldn’t want to bump into one of them during a summer swim.
Make your way next into the penguinarium. These birds like to swim right up to you and frolic around. My daughter had a lot of fun watching one chase her finger as she waved it about in front of it. These South American Magellanic Penguins are obviously very comfortable with people viewing them as they were very curious about the bystanders in the room looking at them and were very friendly about interacting with people.
There is also a 40,000 gallon replica of a Kelp Forest filled eels, small sharks and tropical fish. This is a nice spot to just sit back and relax for a bit watching the fish swim around. In addition to a main viewing area there are a couple of different nooks and crannies that provide different perspectives to view the habitat from. My kids always love watching exotic types of fish swim around so aquariums are always popular spots to visit for us.
The aquarium comes to an end at an impressive tidal basin display. It demonstrates how the surf pounds into rocky spaces along the Pacific Ocean coastline and showcases some of the creatures that live in these areas. Watching the tide wash into this basin every few minutes within this exhibit is captivating. Walk up close to the basin and see there are real live things inside there including coral, fish, snails, sea anemone, star fish, and urchins.
Yes, it was a bummer that a lot of the zoo’s attractions weren’t open during our Spring Break visit and that the weather was frigid, but we still had an enjoyable outing to the John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids. From playing with otters and penguins to spotting the Lock Ness Monster, we still had a lot of fun during our visit. It is small zoo but a very nice one that is worth a stop in if you are going to be in the western part of Michigan. I’d just recommend going during the summer months when you are able to appreciate everything the place has to offer. For more information on admission prices, directions and other details please visit jbzoo.org