For more than 125 years, John Ball Zoo has given Grand Rapids locals and visitors of all ages the experience to learn more about animals from around the world. The zoo is home to over 2,400 animals representing more than 220 species. As an accredited organization with the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), John Ball Zoo also participates in a species survival plan and contributes to field conservation efforts.

With sensory-friendly programs, unique events, and one-of-a-kind visitor opportunities, John Ball Zoo truly offers something for everyone. 

Mom showing son about Red Panda exhibit.

Visit the red pandas on International Red Panda day and any time you visit the zoo.

Photo by Experience Grand Rapids

Annual International Red Panda Day

While International Red Panda Day is on the third Saturday of September, this year the zoo will be celebrating its pair of red pandas, Wyatt and Wasabi, with some special treats. Wasabi was born in 2016 and Wyatt was born in 2012.

Red pandas originate from the Himalayas and enjoy cold weather. Their habitat at the zoo is designed to allow visitors to see them whether they are inside or outside. 

Red panda eating at John Ball Zoo

Fun fact: red pandas have an extended bone like a “thumb” to help them grip and strip bamboo stalks.

Photo by Experience Grand Rapids

More fun facts about red pandas:

  1. Genetically speaking, red pandas are more like the skunks and raccoons we might find in Michigan, than the giant pandas they live within the wild. 
  2. Red pandas are usually quiet, but when they do make a noise, it sounds like squeals, twitters, and huff-quacks. 
  3. Their mostly white faces have reddish “tear tracks” that extend from their eyes to the corner of their mouths and might help keep the sun out of their eyes. They look like natural sunglasses!
  4. Red pandas are excellent climbers and spend most of their lives in trees. They use these to escape predators and to sunbathe in the winter.
  5. They have an extended bone that is like a “thumb” to help them grip and strip bamboo stalks. Since bamboo can be up to 95% of their diet, it’s quite helpful. 
Sensory bag with noise-canceling headphones, feelings cards, and fidget toys

Sensory bags come with helpful items like noise-canceling headphones, feelings cards, and fidget toys.

Photo by Brian Craig for Experience Grand Rapids

Sensory-Friendly Experiences

To help ensure all can enjoy their experience, John Ball Zoo offers sensory bags through its Sensory Inclusion Program. The sensory bags include noise-canceling headphones, lap pads, fidget toys, and a feelings card. 

The zoo has also marked “Headphone Zones” in the budgie aviary, aquarium, Natural Treasures building, and the chimpanzee indoor viewing area where the crowds and noise could be triggers. Quiet Areas are marked as well and located at the Waterfall Trail, Forest Realm trail, chimpanzee viewing tunnel, and between the North American porcupine and Canada lynx habitats. 

Enjoying the ropes course at John Ball Zoo. (4ft tall and close-toed shoes to use).

In addition to visiting the animals, the zoo offers many other experiences, like the Sky Trail Ropes Course.

Photo by Experience Grand Rapids

Events and Experiences

Get up close and personal with one of the incredible behind-the-scene encounters offered by the zoo. Feed brown bears or learn firsthand how zookeepers take care of the penguins. Be sure to contact John Ball Zoo to book your reservation beforehand.

For additional adventures, consider taking a ride up the zoo's funicular before heading to Tree Top Play Zone, or hit the zipline on your way to Sky Trail Ropes Course.

The zoo also occasionally hosts adults-only nights called Roaring Nights. Adults ages 21-years and older can enjoy the zoo without kids for an evening of fun and exploration. There are adult beverages and savory food for purchase. 

And of course the zoo also offers annual kid-friendly events and activities like summer camps, evening and daytime tours, and more. 

This year the zoo is hosting the traveling exhibit: Washed Ashore. The exhibit features 16 large and colorful sculptures placed throughout the zoo. Each piece is created using only trash collected from the beaches of Oregon to show how much plastic pollution is in our oceans.

On September 24, the zoo is celebrating Monarch Day. Visitors will be able to release tagged monarch butterflies, who will begin migrating south to Mexico. 

Last but certainly not least, don’t forget to mark your calendars for the zoo's annual trick-or-treat event: Zoo Goes Boo and be sure to catch Living Lights: An IllumiZoo Experience, which runs September 30 - November 13.

Bissell Tree House for event

Bissell Tree House at John Ball Zoo can be rented out for business events, weddings, and more.

Photo by Experience Grand Rapids

John Ball Zoo is also a great space for corporate events and other special occasions including retirements, family reunions, and weddings.

Purchase a Culture Pass GR for discounts on admission rates to the zoo and other area cultural attractions.

This article was written by Amy Busse and has been updated by Experience Grand Rapids.