John Ball Zoo taking precautions for animals amidst massive expansion project

The zoo would normally open at the beginning of April, but that is now in question
Posted at 3:23 PM, Mar 19, 2020
and last updated 2020-03-19 17:17:06-04

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Staff at John Ball Zoo are taking precautions around their chimpanzees due to concerns they could potentially pick up COVID-19.

Because of the nature of the coronavirus, most of the animals that live at the zoo are safe. “From the animals perspective, it's just another day," CEO Peter D'Arienzo told FOX 17 Thursday.

But staff is taking certain precautions around their primates.

“We have protocols around the flu with primates and we've enacted those same protocols. Our animals are safe. We trained for this," D'Arienzo said.

The staff members tasked with taking care of the chimpanzees are now practicing social distancing while around them.

“But also wearing face masks. So if you were to go behind-the-scenes in the primate area, you would see keepers with face masks," D'Arienzo said. "We also allow only essential staff that care for the primates go behind the scenes."

Once the zoo gets the go-ahead to open their gates up to the public, visitors may not recognize everything inside.

As you enter the zoo, the pathways have been re-graded to be made quite a bit less steep.

“This whole site, right here, it's going to be what's called a Living Building Challenge Certification," D'Arienzo said Thursday. "It will be the first one in the state of Michigan. And it also means everything you see behind us, all this construction, not one ounce of material went into a landfill.”

Other updates to their infrastructure include a storm water plan that will allow the zoo to divert about 25 million gallons of rain and from entering the Grand River.

"We're actually using nature. So by moving the water around the property, channeling it, we're using a combination of evapotranspiration, which is water pulled up into plants, and then leaching into the groundwater and we're going to direct that water into the pond," D'Arienzo said.

He says they previously had to pump about 1 million gallons of city water a year into the pond that sits in John Ball Park, at the entrance to the zoo.

"Many of your viewers have probably heard of LEED, which is a certification building standard. We looked at that and we felt it didn't go far enough. LEED Platinum doesn't go far enough," D'Arienzo said.

There is also a new bathroom at the zoo's entrance made completely out of old shipping containers.

D'Arienzo says they are doing a lot of construction and planning now that will allow them to continue expanding the zoo in the future. "One of those exciting new animals we're bringing to the zoo in our master plan is Pygmy Hippos. The (somewhat) tiny hippos are still a few years off, as is a Steller's Sea Eagle exhibit where the Bald Eagles currently are.

One exhibit that will be ready for guests once the gates open up is an interactive meerkat habitat.

"What they'll see this year is it's one of the best meerkat habitats in the United States. And in that meerkat habitat are also African porcupines sharing the space," D'Arienzo said.

Right next to the new habitat is a large rock with several brass meerkats permanently perched atop. The piece was done by local sculptor Mic Carlson.

"I'm hoping this will become a great photo op for families," D'Arienzo said Thursday. “Every new habitat will have some type of commissioned local art."

The CEO says plans are in motion now to ensure every person and every animal is healthy once they do open their gates.

"Our focus is this, we have our animals and our team members. And when this virus passes, we'll be ready to serve our community and try to add a little bit of normalcy back in everyone's lives.”

Stay up to speed on everything happening at the zoo by visiting its website.