The John Ball Zoo in Grand Rapids, Michigan has been a place of nostalgia for us since we first visited almost a decade ago in 2013. Derek and I have made a lot of memories together going to zoos, aquariums, and wildlife sanctuaries over the years which has evolved into our passion for birding on our travels. Our love of animals also comes from childhood experiences. I grew up looking forward to zoo visits with my family and Derek volunteered at an animal shelter as a kid in Asheville, NC. When Aunt Jackie invited us to join her for an afternoon at the John Ball Zoo to see the Washed Ashore: Art to Save the Sea exhibit, we were excited to visit with her. We have run the Kent Trails that go past the zoo many times when visiting family in town but it had been a while since we had made a zoo trip.
125 years…and Beyond! The zoo’s history circa 1891 reflects that of most American zoos created in the Victorian era. Cities began to build their own zoos in the late 19th century to share collections of exotic animals with the general public that was previously only accessible by the wealthy. Over the years, zoos have evolved to bring education and conservation to the forefront as the primary focus for wildlife preservation instead of mere public entertainment. John Ball Zoo is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation that is committed to this mission. The zoo inherits its namesake from John Ball who left 40 acres of land for public use to the city of Grand Rapids in 1884 which led to the development of the zoo we know today. He was known as an observer of human nature, a supporter of education, a naturalist, and a writer. (John Ball Zoo)
Upon entry, we were greeted by Brody, the Adélie penguin, built entirely of plastics from his spikey head to his webbed feet. Plastics are a major threat to the Adélie even in their remote environment in Antarctica where penguins accidentally eat pieces of plastic when diving for their meals either directly or through the fish they eat. Industrial toxins are absorbed in the plastics causing severe health problems in the animals that eat them. The Adélie penguin sculpture is made entirely of marine debris collected from the beaches of the Oregon coast by crews of volunteers for the Washed Ashore nonprofit. Artists used these found objects to create intricate, beautifully designed, giant sea life creatures made from the very plastics that threaten them, washed ashore on our beaches. Over 18 tons of marine garbage have been removed from beaches and processed into over 60 works of art that travel the country to raise awareness.
Each sculpture was unique to the area of the zoo where it was on display and the animal’s unique life experiences. For example, Daisy the Polar Bear sat atop a melting iceberg to symbolize the habitat loss currently happening in the arctic due to climate change. Polar bears have adapted to hunt their main food source, seals, on arctic ice shelves which are shrinking in a warming world leaving the bears struggling to find new food sources. The artist created dripping icicles made from plastic ice trays, strainers, and coolers. Since the sculptures are made entirely of found objects, no paint has been added to decorate the final artwork. Each piece of colored plastic secured to the sculpture is sourced from just as it was found on the beach.
As we made our way around the zoo map, we stopped to admire each of the sculptures alongside the animals who live there. One of my favorites was the fish with a goofy smile! Derek liked the Bald Eagle and Aunt Jackie said that she loved them all, but I think she was most fascinated by the details found inside the mouth of the Great White Shark! The level of detail in consideration of found objects was extraordinary as we spotted shredded sneakers, lighters, toothbrushes, golf balls, fishing nets, etc, carefully arranged into overall sections of color that blended together as a puzzle of oceanic mishaps.
While the wildlife sculptures were the highlight of the visit, we did see some animals along the way. However, it was a very HOT afternoon in July and the animals could feel it too as most of them were either napping or lounging indoors in-between bites on their afternoon meals. We were lucky to see Noorundi, the four-year-old koala, peel open an eyelid for his visitors in the temporary exhibit since koalas sleep over 20 hours a day.
It was a great afternoon to catch up with Aunt Jackie and sightsee our way through the animals of the world who call the John Ball Zoo home. I was grateful for the opportunity to see the Jager family over the weekend while working the Beer City Open Pickleball Tournament in Grand Rapids. It gave us a chance to have a few overnights with more time to make memories playing board games, cooking meals together, and visiting the zoo again.
“Art is not what you see, but what you make others see.” -Edgar Degas