Get to know Grand Rapids (and the world)

Andy McIntyre, John Ball Zoo director

In a world of constant phone checks and earbuds, the idea of nature can get lost.

Even for someone who has loved nature his whole life, like Andy McIntyre, they get lost. The acting director of John Ball Zoo said he too has succumbed to the modern habits of technology.

But he still finds time to getaway. Time to himself, to observe the zoo’s exhibits.

“The time I find myself most relaxed is when I can just sit and watch and observe nature; an animal,” McIntyre said.

That observation is one of the main reasons zoos are important to society. To reconnect the disconnected populous of the importance of the natural world.

Zoos allow people to see the way their actions hurt the environment, along with being the no. 1 contributor to conservation efforts.

“They raise awareness,” he said. “It can make you realize what you need to do or ways you impact the Earth you wouldn’t expect.”

So as the zoo, which recently became seasonal, comes out of its winter slumber to the season visitors swarm to see animals, McIntyre sat at his desk in the zoo’s administration office during a rainy April afternoon. (The zoo is in the middle of an ownership change.)

Although the summer is busy for the zoo, a director’s job is busiest during the winter, planning for the new developments of the summer busy season.

With focus on visitor and animal safety, the zoo has made strides the past few years to enhance the visitor experience.

“We’re trying to be creative and bring the visitors an experience they’ll enjoy,” he said. “We focus on customer experience; trying to make it interactive.

This summer, they’ll show off the new bear exhibit, which was originally built in 1958.

In the near future, they’ll be building a new tiger exhibit, which will anchor a whole new section of exhibits. All of the recent improvements come after a short flirtation with moving the zoo our near Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park.

The new exhibits can come as a surprise, since John Ball Park is in a fairly constrained footprint. But the hillside location offers a fairly unique ability to change its layout.

“We’re always going to see older and newer exhibits,” he said. “We have to stay current. The hillside is a challenge, but it’s unique, allowing us to weave through the hills and trees, creating an intimate experience.”

McIntyre compared the layout of the zoo to a canvas, saying although it’s a challenge, it’s also an opportunity.

Zoos often come under a lot of negative light; accused of being cruel and terrible for animals.

But now, they’re a necessary part of the wild world.

“As in any industry, you learn how to have a healthier population,” he said. “Over the years we learn how to have a better exhibits and care and about the animals.”

The zoo also helps diversify animal populations. Now zoos almost exclusively house animals born and breed in captivity.

And along with the AZA, zoos work together to make facilitate and monitor animal genetics.

“We play matchmaker for genetics,” he said. “We try our best to maintain diversity.”

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