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G-Sync: Rare Intervention

No bears, or Tommys were injured in the making of this photo.

In all fairness, I could not recall the last occasion I took time out of my day to visit a zoo before I recently went to John Ball Zoo for this editorial. As such, I found myself marveling at the additions that have been added over the years. Things are bigger, have more texture, and are a lot greener than I recall.

Some may attribute my long absence to my changing tastes as an adult, or the fact that I have no kids, or to the often-presented views of some friends who do not like zoos for a host of reasons. But after my time spent wandering with the animals and talking to the Zoo's docents, I have a renewed passion for what our modern zoo is bringing to our community -- and for many reasons.

My first observation is our zoo's commitment to programming as evidenced by the giant white board that greets guests upon arrival, illustrating the events occurring on that particular day.

Starting on July 16, the zoo will kick off a very exciting new program called R.A.R.E. (Really Awesome, Really Endangered) that will focus on a different breed's endangered or vulnerable species each day over the course of the next 65 days.

Andy McIntyre, the Zoo's acting director, sees this program as a chance for people to see endangered animals up close and make conclusions based on science.

"We hope our new R.A.R.E program, created by the John Ball Zoo Society's Executive Director Brenda Stringer, helps to build on our existing educational programming by providing opportunity for our guests to make first-hand observations that will hopefully translate from curiosity to a genuine yearning for further knowledge about an animal at risk," says McIntyre. "We hope they will begin to ask questions [regarding] how they can impact these creatures' survival."

This "think global, act local" approach at the Zoo reinforces the timeless worldview that the actions of the one can indeed impact the many. This focus on personal responsibility is delivered gently through educational instruction, hands-on activities, and informative signage. It is no doubt why the John Ball Zoo School, a program of the Grand Rapids Public Schools hosted at the Zoo, was voted by Scholastic Parent & Child Magazine as one of the "Top 25 Coolest Schools in America" in 2012.

The Zoo has also modernized in other ways to connect more with the community at large and abroad by hosting a blog, Twitter account, a Facebook page, and an app -- produced by GVSU’s students -- for Apple and Android platforms.

This journey to change the Zoo's image can be traced back to a couple guys who were already known as being Mr. Fabulous. In 1985, John Boyles and Dick Faber of the local Mr. Fables restaurant franchise started the John Ball Society Conservation Fund -- a first of its kind for a zoo of our size -- that would support conservation efforts through grants. A total of 140 projects to-date in 47 countries have been funded, including 26 projects in Michigan.

When you visit the Zoo, you get to hear stories about the work of the Zoo's conservation fund as shared by its docents. It is one way for people to get directly involved in the preservation of these rare species.

The Zoo often brings to one person the knowledge that their role can create positive change in their community, but this number becomes even more impressive when you factor in the more than 400,000 guests who come through the gates each year. When people hear the stories of the animals, many of which have been rescued from a host of traumatic situations that would have led to their death in the wild, you can see something impressive at work here in our zoo.

My other observation is that they have a very talented staff serving as much more than just docents for the Zoo's creatures. Many of these individuals spend their off time in the field, conducting research or assisting in conservation efforts like the preservation of the Massasauga -- Michigan's only rattle snake -- or traveling abroad to other countries to assist in the field, treetops, or oceans.

Our talent and our grant making offered via the conservation fund is why John Ball Zoo's name is known the world over.

But my last observation lies in the unexpected discoveries. On the day I walked through, it was revealed to the public that the Zoo's howler monkeys, who had given birth just a few weeks prior to my visit, were ready to be introduced to the people of Kent County.

This unexpected and truly unscripted moment that only an animal can provide is why spending time with them helps us better understand each other.  

Sure Dr. Doolittle said it best when he sang, "If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages / Think of all the things we could discuss." But in the absence of a real language, the next best thing is to just spend time looking into their eyes and marveling at how wonderful our world is with these creatures in it, and why their survival is critical.

They have no voice but yours, and a zoo that encourages patrons to move beyond passive observation patterns of old to a more active and educational sanctuary is truly a modern zoo in every way. The evolution of the John Ball Zoo as a conservation center in the heart of our city is truly remarkable in every way for us, our community, and for our world.

The Future Needs All of Us.

Tommy Allen

Lifestyle Editor

To see G-Sync Events, a curated list of the finest in entertainment, visit here.

Editor’s Note: The image of the bear with Tommy in the exhibit is manipulated for comic purposes only. However, what is true is that the finale of R.A.R.E. will be the special event 'An Evening with Joel Sartore,' a National Geographic award-winning photographer, author, and regular contributor to CBS Sunday Morning. Proceeds raised from the September 18 event will be applied to the John Ball Society Conservation Fund. The Zoo is very close to securing the last of their funding to build a new tiger exhibit. They hope to break ground Fall 2013.
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