Hospitality Husbandry And HVAC

October 31, 2006
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GRAND RAPIDS — Like big, goofy dogs, the two grizzly bears lumber to the access door of their cage, their curiosity aroused by the visitors. It's too early for dinner and too late for lunch. Yet, it's clear the keeper is preparing a meal.

"They're wondering if we've got a snack for them," said Allmon Forrester, operations manager of the JohnBallZoological Garden

Their meal, which one of the zoo's animal care specialists is preparing a few hours early as a demonstration, is a 1,300-gram mix of cut apples, carrots and sweet potatoes, accompanied by a small bucket of omnivore mix — a grainy food stuff that looks a lot like dog food, if the dog were the size of a small car.

"When they're in here, you don't want to cross that yellow line," explained Bert Vescolani, zoo director, pointing to the yellow line that runs along the cage walls. "They're generally not aggressive, but you don't take any chances."

There are no less than three heavy iron doors and a chain link fence between the bears and the public spaces of the zoo, apart from the wall and trench that separate Yogi and Booboo from zoo patrons. This door, the one that leads from the prep area to the dens, is the second line of defense. There is another door to each of the bears' dens, which are adorned with tractor tires and not much else. Yogi uses his tire for a bed; Booboo has torn hers to shreds.

For obvious reasons, the bears are some of the better-fed animals here: three meals a day, one of which will be spread out and hidden throughout the exhibit, plus snacks. The goal is to provide as much variety in the diet as possible. Yesterday there was a bowl of oatmeal in the mix, the day before, peanut butter and applesauce sandwiches. The keeper complains that the bears will only eat name-brand peanut butter: Jif.

On any given day, 18 animal care specialists and hundreds of volunteers prepare over 2,000 meals for 1,969 animals. Each of the 250 different species represented requires a separate and unique diet. The hope is to simulate the animals' natural diet as closely as possible.

"That's not always practical," Vescolani said. "Polar bears eat seals in the wild, for instance, and you can see why that would be a problem."

While it's not all name-brand goods, all of the $200,000 in food the animals receive each year is restaurant grade, from the same sources that supply the region's restaurants. And, like people, some of the animals have special diets for special needs. As the zoo has aged, so have its animals, and geriatric care is a pressing concern.

In fact, all the animals are ongoing concerns. There are the relatively new chimpanzees, which could tear a man in half if given the opportunity. In the zoo's master plan, the chimps will eventually be located next to a new lion exhibit and the savannah exhibit's warthogs and zebras. How do you shield potential prey from the stress of seeing and smelling a predator?

At the zoo's entrance, wild intruder ducks mingle with the flamingos and other birds of the zoo collection, battling for food and space.

Past that is the entrance to one of the most complex mechanical systems in the city, the Van Andel Living Shores Aquarium.

"Most buildings are built for people," Vescolani said. "When you add animals to the equation, it changes everything. In most of the zoo, the air quality is the environmental quality. Here, the water is their air, and it has to be perfect."

Any deviation in the temperature and salinity of the water can be deadly. Each of the exhibits has a separate life support system specific to habitat. In the underbelly of the facility, there are dozens of pipes and filtration systems, bearing labels such as "Michigan Stream," "Patagonia Fish," "Freshwater Stream" and so on.

In a secure area of the aquarium, a crèche of penguin chicks are learning how to swim, secluded from the public. The zoo is home to one of the nation's more successful penguin husbandry programs, one of the many specialized activities tended by the zoo's exotic animal veterinarian and caregivers.

This year, the aquarium will use 60,000 pounds of a product called "Instant Ocean" to simulate saltwater environments. The zoo as a whole will use 65 million gallons of water. It will also go through over 100 miles of toilet paper — an item reserved primarily for a species higher up the food chain than the animal specimens.

On any given day, the most abundant animal on the zoo grounds is people. A near record 360,000 visited the zoo this year, in addition to the 80,000 that attended scheduled events at the adjoining JohnBallPark, and 300,000 who participated in educational programs. In addition to attendance, every aspect of participation measured by the zoo was dramatically up this year: park rentals by 20 percent, memberships by 18 percent. Feedback from visitors ranked staff at 4.76 on a five-point scale, and 94 percent of visitors indicated they would return in the next 12 months.

Forrester has initiated a number of changes in how the zoo is managed to increase communication and efficiency. Among these are efforts to conserve water, mine gate sales for data and increase the number of staff meetings. The staff has also authored a grant request to evaluate the bio-fuel potential of the tons of animal waste the specimens produce each day.

Vescolani and Forrester are happy to report that the zoo's operations costs have not risen at anywhere near the rate of its revenue. In the near future, however, they know the zoo will look to the community for assistance.

"There is only so much efficiency you can squeeze out of structures that are 50 years old," Forrester said.

John Ball is the nation's 10th oldest zoo. Though there are a handful of new exhibits such as the aquarium and chimp exhibit, many structures in the 17-building, 103-acre campus are 50, even 60 years old. None are unsafe, but they are dreadfully obsolete. Even some "newer" exhibits, such as the 20-year-old prairie dog exhibit, are outdated. In today's zoo market, such an exhibit would include an underground cavern experience.

The grizzly bear and lion exhibits are poignant examples. Both are essentially concrete cages, with little to occupy the animal or enhance the visitor experience. In Vescolani's master plan, the bear exhibit would be moved to the front of the zoo and doubled in size. He envisions a large glass enclosure along one wall that would allow visitors a face-to-face experience with the bears, to fully appreciate their size and manner. As for the lion exhibit, Vescolani said, anything would be an improvement over the current structure, which he hopes to raze.

Visitor experience and animal comfort are only partial concerns in upgrading the facility. From an operational standpoint, it is just not as efficient as a new facility would be. Energy and water usage will decrease with each new structure. Ease of mobility is another concern — the zoo uses 3,120 bales of hay each year, and until a service drive is completed next year, there is no truck access to the areas where it is most used. Other savings would be found in a new main gate layout, with ticketing and stroller rentals done in a more efficient manner.

The current infrastructure also forbids many amenities that most businesses take for granted — broadband Internet, for example.

"We've got (staff) dialing up," Vescolani said. "I don't know who does that anymore."

Unlike past expansion plans, the current model has no interest in a new site or infringing on the park. And because of the historically open layout, any renovations can be easily accomplished through a phased process.

"We don't have to do it all at once," Vescolani said. "We can pick them off one at a time."    

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