- Nicole Villalpando American-Statesman Staff
You know zoologist Jack Hanna for his appearances on David Letterman’s TV shows. While Letterman was reacting with fear or annoyance to whatever animal Hanna brought on the show, there was Hanna, delivering information about the animal.
It was all part of Hanna’s ultimate goal of educating people about animals to help them develop a lifelong love of them and want to practice conservation.
The director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium comes to Austin on Sunday, bringing his live show to the Paramount Theatre. During the show, he’ll show video clips of animals in the wild as well as bring out animals for the audience to see.
What kind of animals? “I’ll probably bring my wife,” he jokes. Of course, Suzi, whom he’s been married to since 1968, isn’t the animal he’s known for, but she and their three daughters and now grandchildren, too, have been part of various versions of his TV show, including the current “Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown,” which airs on Saturday mornings on ABC.
On Sunday in Austin, though, you can expect to see a cheetah, a sloth and a penguin, as well as two you might not have seen before: the echidna, which is one of only two egg-laying mammals, and the seriema, a bird that eats lizards by smashing them using a rock.
The show is for anyone from age 3 to 100. It’s family fun while being educational, he says. And yes, he now has grandparents who remember watching him on TV bringing their grandchildren. It could make the 70-year-old feel old, but then he thinks of all the cool things he gets to do and bring to audiences.
Recently, after a 30-year quest, he finally was able to film the Great Migration, that three-day-period each year when 3 million animals in Kenya walk in single-file to find water.
Hanna grew up wanting to be a zookeeper. By age 11 he was cleaning out cages in a veterinary office. By age 15, he was working at a local zoo in Knoxville, Tenn., where he grew up. He followed that path after college and military service to first owning a pet shop and then working at a zoo in Florida.
His daughter Julie’s cancer diagnosis brought the family to Columbus, Ohio, to visit with doctors there. He’s been head of the Columbus Zoo since 1978, but became the director emeritus in 1992 to accommodate the 200 days a year of travel he does.
“I never wavered from my dream,” he says.
The TV shows and appearances, though, weren’t in his plan. He tries to make those shows, those appearances about respecting the animals. He trains everyone who works on the show that respect for the animals comes first. That’s why you won’t see his crew get too close to an elephant to make it charge. “It’s not fair to the animal,” Hanna says.
Filming animals in the wild teaches you patience. Sometimes people will want to come to the wild with Hanna and his crew to watch a taping, but the sun-up-to-sundown filming isn’t as exciting as you might think. “It’s like watching paint dry,” he says. Within an hour, the visitors will move on to see other animals while the crew is still filming the same one, waiting for something to happen.
If Hanna does get hurt, it’s never the animal’s fault — it’s something he did. Once an anaconda grabbed his finger and didn’t let go for 20 minutes, but he doesn’t brag about his near-misses, and he doesn’t try to make an animal bite him. “It’s like a race car driver doesn’t brag about the time he crashed the car,” he says.
With as many animals as he has seen in nature, he still gets inspired by them. He remembers well the first time he saw a lion in the wild on his first trip to Africa in 1979. “Oh, my gosh, lions.” That was followed by elephants and giraffes and hippos, and then koalas in Australia and polar bears in Canada. He’s been to every continent to see animals. “I’m fascinated by just about everything.”
But the wild is not the wild that we think of, he says. Because of humans, most animals in nature don’t live in the wild. They live in vast nature preserves or parks where they are monitored and protected by rangers.
He’s seen what that protection and working with local governments has done for species. The mountain gorillas of Rwanda went from 250 and near extinction to more than 900 since the early 1980s. He still gets moved every time he sees one. Because of strict protections the Rwanda government has put into place, you have to have a permit to see them, and there are strict rules about how to act and what you can bring with you. Though he’s seen them more than 70 times, “Every time I do it, I don’t believe we’re doing it,” he says. It’s a bucket-list item. “Some people cry like crazy.”
The gorillas and the people of Rwanda keep him coming back. The Hannas now have a house in Rwanda, and they’ve built a school there for children with disabilities.
While the mountain gorillas only exist in that small part of Africa, other species have come to rely on the work that zoos are doing. In addition to the Columbus Zoo, which has a rich mating program and a commitment to more natural enclosures, Hanna helped start the Wilds, a 10,000-acre animal park in southeastern Ohio for animals that are endangered or extinct in the wild. While the Columbus Zoo might get 30,000 to 40,000 visitors a day, the Wilds only allows 500 people a day to visit the grounds by Jeep.
Hanna says he loves to stay busy. “I love what I do so much,” he says, but there are grandchildren to see. He’s beginning to cut back on his appearances. “I choose where I want to go now.”
He will continue to do charity events for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital and the Nationwide Children’s Hospital, which saved his daughter’s life decades ago, as well as the school in Rwanda. And he’ll head up to Montana in the summers to his house outside Glacier National Park to go hiking.
“It’s what I do to relax,” he says.
Through the power of TV and syndication, he’ll continue to do what he does best: Make us care about animals.