Not all animals are meant to be kept in your home — there’s a reason why an “elephant in the room” isn’t considered a good thing. Luckily, zoos take in those animals that are in need or in danger of extinction and allow us to get a look without having to find room for a giraffe in the backyard. West Michigan has plenty of zoos, sanctuaries and animal parks to check out, you just have to know where to look.
John Ball Zoo
1300 W. Fulton St., Grand Rapids
One of Grand Rapids’ largest and oldest attractions is also a great opportunity to learn. The John Ball Zoo, located on a hillside in the west side of Grand Rapids, is a popular family-friendly spot known as one of the best zoos around.
John Ball is up-close and personal, which is ideal for seeing animals. Throughout the park, you may even find some animals outside of their cages with the zookeepers, giving you an opportunity to be closer while learning a thing or two.
Even if you’ve been recently, the zoo has been going through renovations and expansions over the years and also bringing in new animals like a red panda, meerkats, toucans, armadillos and more.
Blandford Nature Center
1715 Hillburn Ave. NW, Grand Rapids
Inspired by true nature — getting dirty and learning hands-on — the Blandford Nature Center is passionate about what they do. With a passion for building community, Blandford focuses on rescuing animals while letting them live in a truly natural setting. It may not have all the animals big zoos have, but it does have lovely “wildlife ambassadors” like owls, vultures, snakes, turtles and Bob the bobcat, all of whom couldn’t survive completely on their own.
You can see them all while walking beautiful trails and visiting historic structures, such as the R.B. Stilwill Blacksmith shop originally built in 1869 or the Star Schoolhouse, built in 1853.
Binder Park Zoo
7400 Division Dr., Battle Creek
As one of the most interactive animal experiences around, Binder Park Zoo packs it all in. Located in Battle Creek, this zoo has plenty of activities for people of any age to get involved in. To start, you can head to the Twiga Giraffe Experience, feeding the giraffes a snack and snapping a photo — you might even get a long-necked kiss!
Or, head to the Wild Africa walking path for an enriching trip through history and zoology. Binder Park has all kinds of animals you might see on a safari, like lions, gazelles, painted dogs, zebras, kangaroos and so many more.
Boulder Ridge Wild Animal Park
8313 Pratt Lake Ave. SE, Alto
Round up family and friends and head to this private animal park for a truly unique experience. Despite having hundreds and hundreds of species, Boulder Ridge is known for having exhibits you can get closer to, including flamingos, monkeys, lemurs, kangaroos and more.
If you’re looking to be a bit more adventurous, hop on a safari ride for the wildebeests, water buffalos, ostriches and other favorites you might remember from the Lion King. If you’re seeking an even more personal experience with animals, you can feed some, like the dromedary camel or giraffe, or stop by the petting zoo inside to see baby goats and others.
Critchlow Alligator Sanctuary
1698 M-66, Athens
We’ve all watched in amazement as Steve Irwin held alligators and pet them, which might’ve led too many people to believe these beasts can be tamed easily. At Critchlow, you’ll realize just how large and in-charge these creatures really are. Since 2008, the sanctuary has rescued hundreds of reptiles that people across the country misguidedly bought as pets. It’s not only seven-foot gators, Critchlow has given a home to tortoises, turtles, snakes, lizards and more.
Even if you are afraid of scaly reptiles, this is the perfect place to conquer those fears. The sanctuary is known for being friendly, caring and informative, offering up-close opportunities to touch and hold some cold-blooded animals.