April 20, 2021


affection for others

Go behind the scenes at John Ball Zoo as they take care of animals during the pandemic

GRAND RAPIDS, MI — Before examining a rooster named Einstein, Dr. Ryan Colburn and veterinary technician Heather Teater take a few extra minutes for an extra layer of safety.

Colburn, the zoo’s head veterinarian, and Teater each don a lab coat, respiratory protective mask and face shield. The rooster, one of over 2,000 animals that call the zoo home, is being examined for a suspected toe infection.

The additional safety precautions are part of the steps the veterinarians, zookeepers and staff have taken during the year-long coronavirus pandemic to care for the animals.

Following a unique 2020 season and offseason during the winter months, the zoo is scheduled to open for the 2021 season Saturday, March 24. Timed tickets and limited capacity will be in effect.

The state’s coronavirus orders, which limited attendance to the zoo last year, also resulted in a financial loss.

Due to the pandemic, the Grand Rapids zoo remained closed for the first two months of its usual season, followed by restricted capacity for June, July and August. John Ball Zoo CEO Peter D’Arienzo told MLive last year that the zoo would have received $2 million in revenue by the end of the first two months of the 2020 season had it not been closed.

Despite various hardships caused by the pandemic, the level of care for the animals never dwindled. If an animal had a medical need, the animal health team provided it.

“That’s something I’m very proud of as a zoo, that we were able to navigate the process that way,” Colburn said. “Certainly it wasn’t without things having to change. It wasn’t without a loss, but it was not a loss that put the animals in jeopardy.”

According to Colburn, it has been a team effort. The animal health team works with the zookeepers, referred to as the animal care team, to monitor the animals closely and determine if they have any medical needs.

Colburn typically performed his rounds in person in each area of the zoo before the pandemic hit Michigan. A spike in COVID-19 cases in November led him to adapt his traditional routine. Now he conducts virtual rounds on Mondays, meeting with zookeepers from sections of the zoo to discuss any medical issues he will address in person later that day or week.

Throughout it all, the animal health team worked to keep the animals and each other healthy during the global health crisis. Increased personal protective equipment, decreased working groups, virtual alternatives and extra efforts from all staff factored into the zoo’s success in making it through relatively unscathed just in time for the 2021 season.

In addition to Colburn, two veterinary technicians, a hospital zookeeper, and three commissary team members comprise the animal health team.

“Our first step in the very beginning was to really look through all the animals we had here at the zoo and try to determine what was the level of risk for each species and how are we going to take steps to keep them safe,” Colburn said. “A lot of that involved taking the things that we’re already doing with ourselves – social distancing, wearing masks and other PPE – to how we care for them. So when we’re preparing (the mammals’) diets we’re wearing gloves and we’re wearing masks when we’re doing training sessions or working with animals.”

Some routine procedures that require lots of people to be in a small space have had to be delayed and some budget adjustments have had to be made to keep necessary operations going.

Some animals are susceptible to COVID-19, and staff worked to determine the level of risk for each species at the zoo.

“Early on we didn’t know when would we have a case or would we have a case, and as of yet we have not had a case at John Ball Zoo, but it has happened at several others,” Colburn said.

John Ball Zoo will open this Saturday at a limited capacity due to state coronavirus orders. Guests are encouraged to reserve timed-entry tickets online, as immediate entry is not guaranteed if purchased at the zoo. Wearing a mask is required and social distancing measures are in effect.

Tickets for opening day, March 27, through April 11 are on sale. Spring hours are Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Saturday and Sunday from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. Ticket information and more are available at www.jbzoo.org/visitandtickets.

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