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Lions, Tigers and Bears: (Re)visiting the city's zoo

Brenda Stringer

Nestled in the heart of the city's west side, John Ball Zoo has long been an urban park and a favorite spot for area children. With recent additions -- and a new tiger exhibit -- the city's zoo is expanding its reach and nurturing the community right along with its animals. J. Rae Young gets up close and personal with some of its newest inhabitants to find out what role the zoo is playing in Grand Rapids' growth.
“There is something about tigers,” describes Brenda Stringer, director of institutional advancement at John Ball Zoo. “They are almost mystical.”

The new tiger exhibit.In June, the zoo opened the first phase of their new tiger exhibit, called the “Forest Habitat.” Located on the zoo’s previously undeveloped hilltop, the habitat is now home to three adult Amur tigers, which are endangered and native to Siberia. The female, called Nika, is a 9-year-old from Potter Park Zoo in Lansing. The two males, Kuza and Yuri, are 3-year-old, 450-pound brothers from Syracuse, New York. The brothers are living and interacting with their habitat together which is unique for tigers. “Normally you shouldn’t exhibit tigers together because they’re solitary,” explains Stringer. “But because they were raised together, they go together.”

The new tiger habitat was built specifically as a breeding facility. “That is our mission: to save these animals, to save their habitats, to save the world,” says Stringer directly. John Ball Zoo doesn’t currently hold a breeding recommendation, but it is working cooperatively with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan. “Space is such an issue,” Stringer explains, “that the [Association] committee was really excited when we told them we were going to build a facility.”

The second phase of the tiger exhibit will be completed in the fall and will open to the public in the spring of 2015. It will include a lower habitat at the bottom of the hill and a “Tiger Trail” through the woods.

“People are very curious of what a tiger trail is,” says Kevin O’Neill, CEO of the zoo. The tigers will be able to move from the top to the bottom of the hill through a 6-foot, wire-mesh tunnel, placed alongside the wooded pedestrian path. “It’s right along the boardwalk and that wire-mesh, because it is black, disappears.” This hidden fencing is part of the zoo’s continued goal of bringing visitors closer to the animals through more natural, “soft” exhibits.

The new tiger exhibit has new facilities for visitors too.The lower tiger habitat will look and feel similar to the Lake Manyara lion and chimpanzee exhibits, completed in 2008, with artificial rock work, a pool, and a glass front. “That lower habitat is going to be so exciting, because you’ll be able to see them swimming,” says O’Neill. “My mental model of the tiger was not in the water, at all, but this is the only breed of tigers that likes water.”

Stringer adds that, after all the work is done, “the challenge will be: can we ever get them to go down there?” In fact, the tigers are still acclimating to their Forest Habitat. During the grand opening, more than 6,000 visitors eagerly awaited a first glimpse of the tigers in their new home, but the tigers didn’t come out of their holding building. “They’re still animals,” says O’Neill. “People were very understanding.”

Stringer suggests that visitors call before making a trip to the zoo specifically for the tigers to make sure they are outside and visible.

Lawrence Kole, a native of Grand Rapids, was at the grand opening of the tiger exhibit. Although it would have been great to see the tigers that day, Kole says the zoo is more about community. “Going to see all of the exotic animals is a great thing for sure, but to me John Ball Park Zoo has so much more than that,” he says. “The park areas outside of the zoo were full of families grilling out and socializing, and the playgrounds were full of kids from all different backgrounds playing with each other.”

The zoo's funicular.In addition to the landmark park and the tigers, there are many more opportunities, new and old, for visitors to explore in a zoo that has nearly doubled in size in just three years. “It’s like a brand new zoo,” says O’Neill. “You [even] see the same exhibits from such a different perspective. It’s incredible.”

In 2012, the zoo added a significantly larger gift shop, a much-needed warehouse and storage facility, a hilltop treehouse to house special events, and a funicular -- a tram-like passenger service able to take visitors from the front entrance to the new additions on the hilltop. In 2013, they replaced the existing concrete bear and sheep exhibits, which were built in the 1960s, with a new, more natural home for the zoo’s two grizzly bears.

The new bear habitat also includes a “training wall,” where visitors can come almost nose-to-nose with the bears during public training sessions. Sometimes children are even allowed into the exhibit – while the bears are indoors – to spread out enrichment items. “The kids don’t refer to it as enrichment,” O’Neill says with a smile. “[Their] Facebook posts say, ‘We fed the bears!’”

In fact, all of the animal keepers are encouraged and excited to play this more interactive part in the visitor’s experience. “We’ve always had the tradition of sitting in John Ball’s lap. That was your interactive experience at the zoo, but I think there are more traditions that are developing over the years, and more and more icons that come along,” says Stringer. “Our zookeepers are a lot more interactive with the public. They’re like the rock stars of the zoo.”

Ever current, the zookeepers have started a blog, and they even let O’Neill join some of the fun. “On Sunday, they let me train with the snapping turtle!” he says. O’Neill held a stick with a ball on the end, and when the turtle snapped, it was fed a mouse. “It was fascinating. I didn’t know you could train a turtle. And during the feeding [the keeper] could answer questions from the public.”

Additional projects created a new hub on the hilltop near the tigers’ Forest Habitat, including a play area for kids and concessions. “All of this has added to the stay-time, so the length of time a visitor is here gets longer and longer,” says Stringer “That just gives us more time to talk to them and help them have a good time and learn things.”

Last year, the zoo reached more that 700,000 people with their conservation-education programs and had 470,000 visitors, making it the fourth-largest cultural institution in the state as measured by attendance. “I think we have tremendous impact. I think anyone who really gets involved at the zoo feels that,” says Stringer. Half of the visitors are from outside of Kent County, and the zoo has calculated their economic impact at more than $30 million.

“The zoo itself is more of a reason to get out, or a destination. It's a place full of shared experiences,” says Kole. “It is a part of us.”

J. Rae Young is a passionate promoter of Grand Rapids' dynamic local music scene, venues and businesses, and an advocate of cultural understanding. She has taught English locally and in Tanzania, Africa, and treasures personal growth through travel.
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