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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

John Ball Park Zoo

by Rebecca Smith Hoffman

By 1899, the menagerie included a herd of nine deer, three bears, a coyote, wolves, badgers, foxes, raccoons, eagles, peacocks, owls, geese, monkeys, parrots, alligators, macaws, cuckoos, guinea pigs and one wildcat. These animals were kept in cages or fenced areas in the general location now occupied by the current zoo and the slopes above it.  Park patrons could view the animals while strolling along walkways and stairways with stone curbing and rustic wood railings which wound through the wooded hillside.

The city could not afford to feed the animals during the Depression and the zoo was almost completely emptied.  When Frederick See became parks superintendent, his plan for the improvement of John Ball Park included reviving the zoo.  In November 1949, Frederick A. Meyer became the zoo’s first professional curator.  Meyer came to Grand Rapids from Chicago, where he had been Education Director of the Lincoln Park Zoo. Prior to that he had been Curator of Reptiles and later Director of the Buffalo Municipal Zoo. Redevelopment of the zoo has continued through the years, bringing additional animal exhibits, a petting zoo, and an aquarium.  Enclosure of the zoo for security purposes and charging of admission in the early 1970s, ended the previous open circulation system – isolating access to the Middle Knob of the bluff from the park.  

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