The John Ball Zoo Continues to Inspire with its Sustainability Efforts and Awards

Written By: Skyla Jewell-Hammie

At the beginning of October, Grand Rapids’ John Ball Zoo was awarded the West Michigan Sustainable Business of the Year by the West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum. Along with this award, the zoo was also awarded the West Michigan Clean Water Leadership Award, according to The West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF). The Clean Water Leadership Award, in particular, recognizes the commitment to the growth of sustainable stormwater infrastructure and other water quality initiatives, according to the WMSBF. John Ball Zoo shines in the spotlight for its consistent ideas towards creating green infrastructure by utilizing stormwater for the better. 

Allmon Forrester, Director of Facilities, Planning, and Sustainability at John Ball Zoo, wanted to discuss the importance of their sustainability journey and how that can inspire future ideas for cost and energy conservation. 

“It is about taking smart approaches,” Forrester said. “These approaches not only save dollars, but they help the environment. It is not just about looking at the green part of it because when being “ultra-green”, there is a chance of missing the practical, holistic savings that you can do.”

Mr. Forrester wanted to look at new ways to spend less because, according to his findings, the zoo was spending around $450,000 extra per year on their budget if the zoo did not reduce their water usage. He wanted to make a balanced approach that would create more synergy; benefiting the people, while healing the environment. 

“It did not happen overnight, but it happened somewhat organically from the idea of saving us dollars, effort, and the handling of it,” Forrester said. “Our sustainable journey started with the idea that it is not just about the environment, it has to be more than that.”

Because of the inspiration from looking at their utility costs and water usage, Mr. Forrester wanted to look at the stormwater. Around 2004-2005, the community around the zoo would have massive rain events where there would be flooding of picnic areas in the middle of summer. Mr. Forrester noticed the pond becoming low and it had to keep being refilled to keep from staying dry. There ended up being too much water in one place, but not enough in another, according to Mr. Forrester. 

“It took us over a decade to achieve the current diversion of stormwater to our pond that we have,” Forrester said. “Stormwater became of such importance because we started to see the potential stormwater infrastructure for soiled areas in the zoo that are conducive to great periods [of stormwater runoff].”

The Triple Bottom Line was the basis of Mr. Forrester’s decision making.  The meaning behind the theory is the belief that companies should commit to focusing on social and environmental issues as much as they look into profits, according to Sustainability Illustrated of Wisconsin. The Triple Bottom Line was an important aspect of the WMSBF sustainability event and it highlighted many businesses like Consumers Energy in Grand Rapids and El Granjero Mexican Grill for their proactive initiatives to help their community. 

“To me, it is more about prosperity, rather than using the word profit and that is what Triple Bottom Line means to us,” Forrester said. “Too often, the word profit can turn people off because some people may think that nobody will do anything unless there is a dime to be made. If you are helping the environment, meeting people’s needs, and helping people, then it makes a balanced sense.”

Along with looking at stormwater usage, Mr. Forrester wanted to look more at energy usage. With their lion exhibit, they wanted to look at using energy recovering units. The energy recovering unit is a way to warm the air up before it comes into the building. For animal exhibits, the air needs to be changed eight times an hour, which is a huge energy draw. Because of the unit, the zoo was able to use about one-tenth of the amount of energy used to heat the tiger exhibit, which is a little cooler. 

“With the zoo industry, we do not have a fast way of making changes and adapting. We don’t build as many habitats, so it is really hard to use the latest and greatest because times are always changing,” Forrester said. “To help with our journey, we have made a habit of thinking long-term and contacting zoos across the country to look at their best practices to learn from.”

Over the years, the zoo has been taking a more vocal stance over what they have been doing. Because of the notable traction recently, the zoo has been looking to positively influence people who come through the gates.

“We just want to show them a good time that makes an impact,” Forrester said. “We want to target things that people can rely on more. This nation is already divided and we want to look at something that we all can agree on in West Michigan, which is keeping water clean. I think we all can agree that we want to enjoy the outdoors and to do that, there is a balance of choices that need to be made.”

The zoo wanted to incorporate a way to get to the community without making them feel insecure about their sustainability knowledge. The zoo has a focus on speaking to homeowners about what happens in their backyard because overall, the actions we take on our own can affect the environment around us on a great scale.

“Water is plentiful here, but what you do on your own property impacts the rest of the environment,” Forrester said. “As properties are being developed and built, we want to look at effort being put into more rain gardens or looking into new ways of how water runs off and pauses. It is an excellent way of telling our story and talking about what we do; we just want to keep a wild place for wild animals so that we can reintroduce animals to the wild someday in different areas.”

There are things in our own backyard that can impact the environment around us that we may not know of. Mr. Forrester recommends looking into plant choices that are pollinator-friendly and trees that we may plant that aren’t a weed species. Normally, according to Mr. Forrester, some maple species are weed trees that are taking over some of the areas in West Michigan. It is a fast grower, but it is not helping our forests. It is important to look at invasive plant material that will cause more issues in the future and it all starts with our own initiative to protect the environment that not only impacts our lives but wildlife as well. 

Because of Allmon Forrester and the zoo’s Chief Executive Officer Peter D’Arienzo, they have been able to inspire people across West Michigan to look into the act of sustainability and being in-tune with the environment and the species that inhabit it. 

West Michigan Sustainable Business Forum (WMSBF) Executive Director Daniel Schoonmaker was a part of the voting process for the awards that the zoo earned last October. 

“It is impressive and inspiring how the zoo built stormwater management,” Schoonmaker said. “The reason we give out these awards is to recognize organizations and encourage those by example. I am hopeful other facility managers and property owners can look at what they have accomplished and stay encouraged.”

Because the zoo has done exceptional work in stormwater, Mr. Schoonaker wanted to stress the use of water as a resource; not just keeping stormwater on the property, but utilizing it. This was a huge accomplishment to learn and engage from because the pond water was overusing city water each year. 

“The zoo is exploring additional uses for stormwater and that is a great opportunity for other organizations to look at infrastructure as an asset, not just a cost,” Schoonmaker said. “An example of this is using rain gardens or looking at the contaminants on our own properties and how that impairs natural resources.”

Mr. Schoonmaker and the rest of WMSBF are mainly focused on how people do business through environmental practices. WMSBF wants to make sure that investments are centered around social and racial equity. It is not simply about environmental attributes alone, but it also includes our initiative and actions towards how we improve sustainability at a bigger scale and that includes racial equity. 

That is the most important aspect of sustainability because it is not simply about recycling and watching out for littering, although those actions are important as well. If you want to learn more about connecting with your community on social and racial equity, you can find more information on the WMSBF’s website here. 

To follow up more on the zoo’s sustainability efforts and restructuring, you can find more information on their website here.

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