John Ball Zoo

John Ball Zoo's Historical Timeline: 1884 to 1909



John Ball died and in his will left 40 acres of land for public use to City of Grand Rapids. This gift led to the birth of a zoo, John Ball Zoo.


The land John Ball left was being used by the public as a park and was fondly called the “Ball 40”. In 1890 the Common Council declared it would be called John Ball Park.


This is the year we begin to see references to animals being kept at “Ball 40”. As recorded in a local newspaper, the small menagerie included bird cages with half a dozen owls of various kinds, two hawks, a crow, and an eagle. There were also raccoons, a woodchuck, fox squirrels and rabbits. Two deer were added later in November of 1891. This was recorded in the minutes of a meeting of the Common Council. Two aldermen volunteered money from their salaries to purchase a pair of deer. The buck and doe, were specifically purchased to provide the beginning of a herd to populate a deer park area on the hillside


Though the animal collection was growing, visitors wanted a bear. Our best guess is that Ol’Jack the Bear” was added in this year. Jack becomes a favorite, if often notorious critter, in the Zoo.


A new bear exhibit with a cave and room for a whole family was built and a bride for Jack the Bear was acquired.  


Tragedy hits and the city mourned the loss of Ol’ Jack after his escape.


By now the Zoo’s animal collection had grown and exhibits had been added including peacocks, swans, bear, fox, grey wolf and pigeons.


Park Day was a city tradition. Workers would get a half day off and all the city parks would open on the same day. Throngs of citizens would arrive to enjoy band concerts, speeches, and stroll the grounds.


We don’t know very much about the workers who originally cared for the animals but an interview with John W. Smith “The Keeper” in the local paper gives us some insight. A former circus animal handler and trainer talks about how he cares for the animals.


Animals enjoying music. Reporter took a victrola through the Zoo and played music in front of various animals.