John Ball Park Zoo Thirty Years Ago

Pages from A Popular History of Grand Rapids

New River Free Press, October 1975/Reprint

Who's the Zoo                

  • A brilliant, young Grand Rapids writer visits the John Ball Park Zoo on a Sunday in 1975 and his illusions about zoos are shattered. He leaves, asking: "Who's the Zoo?"

By David Banta

Remember going to the zoo as a child, climbing all over John Ball's statue while Mom said, "Smile!" and snapped your picture with her Brownie camera?

Remember the petting zoo where you could not only see the animals, but feel them as well? Remember feeding the deer and the . . . ?


Did I say, Feeding the deer?

That's right.

I used to feed the deer and the monkeys and the bears and probably anything that would eat what I had to offer. People still feed the animals. The list of feed is strange: breakfast cereal, dog food, marshmallows, popcorn, bread, and probably several items that you could add to the list.

At the Detroit zoo, someone even tried to feed the hippopotamus a tennis ball--it ate it, and died.

The feeding, teasing, and general abuse of zoo animals has become a national problem. Because of the cruelty and suffering involved in the capture, transport, and confinement of zoo animals, many anti-zoo groups are forming to end the use of zoos. The August 14 [1975] issue of the Christian Science Monitor contains an excellent article combining both the pro and anti-zoo issues:

  •  "Zoos should be phased out. I don't think that man can justify that form of exploitation of animals." --Alice Herrington, president, Friends of Animals, Inc.
  • "We are basically a pro-zoo organization. They are institutions necessary for the survival of wildlife." --Susan Pressman, wildlife specialist, Humane Society of the United States.
But all of this abuse happens only in the big zoos in the big cities where all the big bad city people would not even help a human being, if he were being murdered, right?


When I went to John Ball Park Zoo after having read the Christian Science Monitor article, my illusions of the good ol' zoo were somewhat shattered. After observing for only a few hours on a Sunday morning, I was prodded by the incidents I saw to ask, "Who's the zoo, the people or the animals?"

Let's handle this like a film.

The scene begins inside the zoo on a pleasant Sunday morning. Feeding of the animals has already taken place and the animals are lazy, basking in the sun and playing. The entire scene is one of serenity and harmony, as far as that goes when you're an animal behind bars.

Enter the first humans. A young man and his family have come to the zoo for some fun.

Look at the funny monkeys. The man approaches Monkey Island. In the middle of the island is a huge sign reading, "NO FEEDING". The man reaches into his plastic bag and pulls out several spongy marshmallows and begins throwing them to the monkeys. Only a few of the monkeys are fast enough to get to the 'treats' before anyone else, and those few stuff themselves. One baby monkey even takes to the water, grabbing at three or four that have fallen short of the island.

"Oh, don't throw them in the water. He might drown," the father says. But when he sees little monkey can swim, he gives the okay with a laugh and the family continues to throw the marshmallows.

As the family entertains itself, an older man and his son approach the scene.

"Dad, they're feeding the animals!?" the little boy says to his father.

The little boy adds, "The sign says, 'Don't feed the animals'."

As we move away from this scene, drifting up above the zoo, we hear the ghastly screams of the monkeys, pushing, pulling, and biting as the entire island becomes a scene of turmoil as the monkeys fight for the marshmallows.

We drift along through the air on a tour of the zoo. As we do so, we hear the different comments at various exhibits.

At the elephant exhibit, the elephant stands at the edge of its enclosure. The elephant looks rather forlorn and humble with the chain on its foot, begging for snacks from a couple watching from the sidewalk. It beckons with its long snakelike trunk.

"Poor elephant!" the woman laments.

"You don't hear it complaining, do you?" her husband replies.

With that bit of wisdom, we move along. In the distance, we hear the strange cry of some animal. Out of curiosity, we move closer to the source of the sound to observe.

"They're are real mean!" a woman is saying to her boy as they stand before the wolverine exhibit.

The boy is without a doubt the source of the sound we heard. At this moment, he is clinging to the fence separating him from the cage, shaking it viciously and growling at the wolverine. The creature (the wolverine) becomes so frightened, it rushes through the door into the inner cage inside the building.

We  move on to the final scene of our film: "Fun at the Zoo."

We begin with a tight shot of the daring and cunning puma. Its face is contorted and it snarls with a guttural sound. What is causing this zoo pussycat to be so nasty?

A girl is standing in front of the cage, swinging her coat within inches of the cat's face. She is grinning as another cat in the cage moves to join the excitement. The first cat bats at the coat with its paw, hooking it on the metal mesh of the cage, nearly ripping its claw. The second cat can stand it no longer and plunges into the action. A fierce fight breaks out, pumas on hind legs, lashing out at each other with deadly claws and teeth.

The girl grins at the fun.

A woman and her friend are walking by as this even occurs and the woman has the 'audacity' to ask the girl to stop teasing the animals.

We begin to pull away from the scene and drift higher above the zoo; we hear the girl muttering, "I'm just playing with them!" as she continues to tease the animals.

Kind of a sad film, isn't it?

Well, it's kind of a sad situation because it's all true and it all happened locally. It's our problem at our zoo.

Read the Animal Bill of Rights at the John Ball Park Zoo entrance. The film about our zoo could be changed if we all cleaned up our act.

[Four photographs by David Banta of animals in cages being mistreated accompanied the article. The photographs were set under the Animal Bill of Rights and the headline: MAKE YOUR OWN ZOO CAPTIONS.]

New River Free Press Note about David Banta, October 1975: "David, a resident of northeast Grand Rapids, is trying to be a photo journalist. 'How do you do it, David?' 'I don't eat!' David is the author of some of the brilliant short stories that have been appearing in New River Free Press over the last year."

New River Free Press, October 1975/Reprint

New River Free Press, August 1975/Reprint

AROUND G. R. WITH LOVE: "When you love something,

you want to see it grow, fulfill all its manifold possibilities."

Trashing Ducks at

John Ball Park

By Chiki

Maybe I'm a spoil sport. Maybe those who throw cans, cigarette packs, and other assorted junk at the ducks and geese in John Ball Park's enclosed pond have no other pleasure in life.

Maybe, if they weren't throwing it at the birds, they'd be throwing it at people.

Perhaps that's what they are practicing to do.

Maybe I'm a spoil sport.

But, then, think of the many people who go to John Ball Park because it's a spot of quiet beauty in our city [Grand Rapids, MI]. Or think of the ducks and geese, how gracefully they clean their feathers every evening.

I think it's time we took some action on this. Or better still, all you constipated garbage throwers, take a moment to stand and stare at the ducks and geese. Relax your spirit. Commune with nature. Stand and Stare.

"What is this life if full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare?"

See, I'm not a spoil sport. You probably feel better already.

New River Free Press, August 1975/Reprint

New River Free Press:

Your Friendly Guide To Urban Survival & Improvement

From 1973 to 1977 Grand Rapids' Independent Voice

This community newspaper was lovingly hand-crafted on an
IBM Selectric. All of its Bookman headlines were produced by
individually hand-pressing transfer lettering.

--Michael Chacko Daniels, Editor & Publisher

Reprinted as part of a new, continuing
Grand Rapids, Michigan,
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Posted on Monday, April 11, 2005 at 03:16PM by Registered CommenterMichael Chacko Daniels | CommentsPost a Comment