Potter Park Zoo Celebrates Centennial
To refer to Potter Park Zoo’s beginnings as “humble” is a stunning understatement when you understand its evolution to the popular attraction it is today.
The award-winning Association of Zoos & Aquariums-accredited facility now boasts 535 animals, 99 species and 184,00 visitors each year. That, however, wasn’t the case when the zoo opened its doors in 1920.
“I know we had a couple of elks, a racoon. I think we had a couple of deer. It was slim pickings,” Zoological Society Executive Director Amy Morris-Hall said before confirming that Potter Park Zoo also was home to a bear in those early days. “It certainly wasn’t what it is now, but this was a community destination back then. It was a destination because of the activities that were taking place in the park. The animals were secondary to that. The zoo has been something that just continued to develop over time.”
Sitting on 85 acres of land off Pennsylvania Avenue in Lansing, with 20 of those acres the actual fenced-in zoo, Potter Park Zoo remembers what it once was and recognizes how far it has come in care, conservation and education as part of the zoo’s centennial celebration this spring and summer.
With the opening of the zoo’s high season on Mother’s Day weekend, Potter Park Zoo visitors will be able to enjoy educational walking tours that transport guests through the zoo’s past and themed weekends of talks and activities. They can also visit Centennial Square to learn not just about the topics related to the facility’s history but also the future focus and ambitions for the site.
“We’ve been working on this for a year and a half, collecting photos and videos and historical information,” Morris-Hall said. “It’s an educational experience to help people understand how we became a modern zoo — how we went from a collection of animals for people to see to the center of conservation that we are now. When you think of a zoo today, it’s a whole different mindset than what it was 100 years ago. Back then, the welfare of the animals was secondary.”
Spring will also likely bring the anticipated public viewing availability of Jaali, the male black rhino born on Christmas Eve to international acclaim, as well as the two new baby otters born at the zoo in February.
The 100-year timeline connecting the past to the present has been a long and sometimes controversial journey. However, Morris-Hall said the journey reflects how ethics and attitudes toward conservation and animal welfare have evolved through the decades as education, knowledge and a more complete understanding of the needs of and care for animals has come into focus.
“I think it demonstrates the kind of path zoos took to make animal welfare their top priority. Our walking tour will exhibit that,” Morris-Hall said. “It’s meant to inspire people about animals and nature because our top priority here is animal care.
“I hope Potter Park Zoo visitors walk away feeling like they learned about conservation through the animals in our care,” she added. “I hope they take actions in their own lives to improve the environment and the natural world.”
Getting that message across to the public is part of the focus of the zoo society that Morris-Hall leads. Potter Park Zoo has two overseeing bodies: the municipal side — which is an Ingham County department funded by a millage, admissions, parking and other factors — and the society side, which is a nonprofit support organization focused on conservation and education.
With a background in journalism and public relations, Morris-Hall has used her experience to help further the zoo society’s mission both within the zoo and beyond the zoo’s walls. She proudly points to the Falconers program, which is for special-needs children and is sensory-friendly, as well as the Zoo in Your Neighborhood outreach program that brings animals to local libraries and community centers and provides free passes to the zoo. Zoo in Your Neighborhood received top honors for inclusivity and diversity from the Association of Zoos & Aquariums
“The goals we have for our zoo are, obviously, to provide a wonderful guest experience and customer service, but we also want to be inclusive to all — and we have programming to make that happen,” she said. “With Zoo in Your Neighborhood, we’re reaching the communities that were not coming here.”
Providing the gold standard in animal care is another vital aspect of Potter Park Zoo’s mission, which is why it takes its accreditation with the Association of Zoos & Aquariums seriously. The accreditation process, which is undertaken every five years, ensures zoos like Potter Park meet the most stringent requirements to ensure animal welfare.
“They come for three days and they look at everything. They open every drawer. They look at every first aid kit,” Morris-Hall said. “They meet with staff, they meet with board members, they met with employees.”
Of the 2,000 facilities that have licenses from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to exhibit animals, only 215 hold accreditations from the AZA. Morris-Hall noted that it reflects the dedication and singlemindedness that every zoo employee has on treating the animals with the top levels of care and compassion.
“I like working with this team,” Morris-Hall said. “It’s a passionate group of people, and we’re all here to do our best for our guests and our animals. I love this zoo. I am passionate about conservation, and I love teaching about what we do and why we do it.”
For more information on Potter Park Zoo and the centennial festivities, visit potterparkzoo.org.
What You See, What You Don’t
The birth of the rare male black rhino Jaali at Potter Park Zoo on Christmas Eve was celebrated worldwide, but when will guests be able to see him in person? Amy Morris-Hall, executive director of the zoological society, said Jaali as well as the two new baby otters born in February will likely be available for viewing this spring, but that’s not up to her.
At Their Own Pace
Animals at the zoo make the move to outdoor viewing areas on their own terms and when they’re good and ready. Some of it depends on the temperature, Morris-Hall noted. On a few unusually pleasant days in early March, zoo personnel opened the doors to Jaali’s enclosure to gauge his reaction.
“Mom walked out and Jaali followed,” Morris-Hall said. “She let out a snort as if to say, ‘I’m not so sure about this.’ And she walked back in and he followed. It’s going to be up to him when he comes outside. The door could be open, but they always get to choose.”
The otters were still in a nest box in early March, and Morris-Hall said their mother would likely have to teach them to swim before they made a public appearance.
An Unexpected Celebrity
Jaali was just one of nine major births at Potter Park Zoo in 2019. Other notable additions last year included two cotton-top tamarins and two western grey kangaroos. However, Jaali caused such a sensation due to his rarity.
There are only an estimated 5,000 black rhinos in the wild and only 50 in human care at zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos & Aquariums.
Born in the early morning hours of Dec. 24, the zoo was ready to release news of his debut to local media. By the end of the day, Morris-Hall was fielding calls from CNN, and shortly thereafter international outlets like the BBC.
“It was great because we really got to talk about the conservation aspect with Jaali and get that message out,” she said, adding that the hubbub wasn’t exactly surprising. “People love animals. I did PR for years, so I know a story about the Michigan Municipal League isn’t going to go as far as a story about a couple of baby otters.
“But nothing went as far as Jaali,” she added.
What You Don’t See
Potter Park Zoo takes immense pride in its conservation initiatives and efforts, and some of those efforts are done completely behind the scenes.
In 2019, the zoo shipped 405 Puerto Rican crested toads for release back in the wild in Puerto Rico. Once thought to be extinct, Puerto Rican crested toads are now bred by zoos for reintroduction to their native land.