November 2006 Issue
A Lesson in Animal Attraction
Through enthusiastic television appearances and his tireless promotion of the Columbus Zoo, Jack Hanna teaches the importance of wildlife conservation.
On a spring day in 1978, a twin-engine plane buzzed across central Ohio, a white blip against the blue sky. In the aircraft's passenger seat, Jack Hanna, on his way to a new job at the Columbus Zoo, was so excited he was practically buzzing, too. The Tennessee native stared out the window at the landscape below, his bird's-eye view introducing Columbus as cloud-free, pristine and full of promise.
This was the big leagues.
But the pilot was lost. "Jack, are you sure you aren't looking for Columbus, Georgia?" he asked.
The local air traffic controller, responding to the pilot's request for coordinates to Hanna's new employer, had just told them, "Columbus doesn't have a zoo."
All Hanna knew was that this place, where he was being invited to serve as executive director, was a wild kingdom compared to the do-it-yourself pet shops and backyard menageries and modest zoos he'd operated down south. So what if it needed to boost its visibility a bit?
That's not a problem - that's a challenge!
The plane touched down and 31-year-old Hanna bounded into a taxi, cheerfully instructing the driver to head toward his destination, his destiny, the Columbus Zoo.
The driver looked at him and said, "We don't have a zoo."
Today, Jack Hanna just grins at the memory. "When even the driver said that it didn't exist," he says, shaking his head, "I thought, 'Oh my goodness.'"
What a difference a few decades make. The little-known zoo on the Scioto river that was once lucky to lure in 341,000 people a year, is now one of the largest zoos in North America: a world-renowned attraction that draws 1.4 million visitors annually to its 590 acres and more than 1,200 different wildlife specimens, from the West Indian manatees (Columbus is one of only three zoos outside Florida to care for and exhibit them) to 50-year-old Colo, the first gorilla born in captivity. Additionally, the zoo is on the cusp of a massive expansion that will include such highlights as a water park and an "African Savanna" teeming with cheetahs, hippopotamuses and wildebeests - growth that, executive director Gerald Borin says, "will change the whole footprint of this place dramatically."
And there's no denying who's the king of the jungle.
"When I walk around here at night now, I just can't believe this is all for real," says director emeritus Hanna, his thick, Knoxville drawl belying a diehard devotion to the Buckeye state. After all, it wasn't until after he came here in 1978 that Hanna rose to fame - and, subsequently, raised the profile of the zoo - as a wildlife expert and charismatic TV personality, booking regular appearances on shows such as "Larry King Live" and "The Late Show with David Letterman"; authoring seven books; hosting his own nationally televised program, "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures"; and even making People magazine's "50 Most Beautiful People" list in 1996. (Former Cosmopolitan editor Helen Gurley Brown called him "devastatingly sexy.")
"People always say to me, 'Jack, you're so lucky: You get to meet all these celebrities and presidents, go on all these TV shows,'" says Hanna. "But my greatest accomplishment, what I'm most proud of, is the Columbus Zoo."
The dirt stains on his pant legs are from Rwanda, acquired while he was climbing a mountain to visit a gorilla.
The numbness in his thumb is from New York - specifically, "The Late Show with David Letterman," where a beaver chomped down on Hanna's hand during a 1990 appearance that sent him running to the emergency room.
But the wide-eyed enthusiasm, the sincere love of animals that inspires the 59-year-old to sport safari-style clothing and keep a cockroach collection, that comes from Bu-Ja-Su Farm.
The rural Tennessee estate on which Hanna was raised - named for him, his brother, Bush, and his sister, Sue - could have doubled as a training ground for aspiring zookeepers. The acres of lush groves and meadows were bursting with wildlife, nurturing young Jack's affection for animals; he also worked for a local veterinarian at age 11.
By the time he headed for Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, drawn to its football program and small class sizes, Hanna's passion for pets was unstoppable. Case in point: How many students do you know who try to smuggle in a donkey at the beginning of the semester?
"I also had three ducks that I put in my dorm room," Hanna says with a laugh. He notes that even though school officials forced him to move his beloved donkey, named Doc, from its hiding place behind a frat house to a nearby farm, Doc became the official mascot for Muskingum's athletics teams.
With an affection for animals that intense, one would think he might have a hard time finding a like-minded spouse. In fact, Hanna found her on campus.
"When we got married, you know how the bride and groom dance to their first song? We danced to 'Born Free,'" says Suzi Hanna, a former Muskingum cheerleader and Jack's wife of 38 years.
The couple initially settled back on the picturesque expanses of Bu-Ja-Su and indulged their interest: buying monkeys from mail-order catalogs, watching their three daughters cavort with lion cubs in the back yard. "Our first nine years of married life, we never took a vacation," says Suzi, who now travels with Jack across the globe when they aren't relaxing in their homes in Columbus and Montana. "Right from the very beginning, we were taking care of animals - hoof stock for the Knoxville Zoo, plus our own animals: llamas, parrots, chimpanzees, puppies ... It was a wonderful life."
While Hanna's jobs prior to his move to central Ohio - ranging from pet-shop owner to director of the Central Florida Zoo - were rewarding, nothing matches his tenure as executive director at the Columbus Zoo from 1978 to 1992. Although he credits everyone from volunteers to the voters of Franklin County for making it the success that it is today, in truth, if it wasn't for some of his early, over-the-top (if eyebrow-raising) promotions, such as hiring one of the Great Wallendas to balance precariously on a tightrope over the tiger exhibit, the Columbus Zoo might still be a mystery to local air traffic controllers.
"You've absolutely got to connect with people and engage them in an entertaining way - that's what I learned from Jack more than anything," says Evan Blumer, executive director of The Wilds, a 10,000-acre preserve in Cumberland where exotic animals roam and visitors discover the importance of conservation through "Sunset Safaris" and summer camps. "You have to first be able to draw people in, so that you can then lead them through the experience."
However, Hanna's gift for promotion hasn't come without criticism. Some say the animals are stressed by being taken out of their natural habitat and placed amid the bright lights and chaotic environment of a television studio. Hanna counters by pointing out that the zoo has its own facility, The Jack Hanna Animal Promotions Complex, where nearly 40 animals used explicitly for programs and appearances are pampered and trained.
And then there's those travel accommodations. When accompanying Hanna for show tapings, the animals always receive first-class treatment, even sharing posh hotel suites with his staff. "Half the time," says promotions manager Suzi Rapp, "I have a dingo in my bed."
During this week in mid-August, though, it is the death of fellow wildlife enthusiast and conservationist, "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, killed by a stingray in Australia's Great Barrier Reef, that has Hanna answering questions from the media - ping-ponging between interviews and occasionally finding his and other TV personalities' motives questioned.
"I had to go after PETA last night," Hanna says to Rapp in his office as she hands him a stack of photos to autograph. He says that People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals had suggested Irwin's death "was no surprise, and that he was a nutcase. So, I went crazy.
"Wild animals are unpredictable, anything can happen to you - I'm sure Steve knew that, and I know that," he says. "I'll tell you one thing: Steve was the greatest wildlife communicator in the history of my lifetime."
For Hanna, that's the point of all his promotion: to attract a large audience in order to teach the importance of wildlife conservation. His career is built on the philosophy that you have to get people to love animals before they'll want to save them. If the Columbus Zoo's attendance records are any indication, millions of people have gotten the message.