Another Conversation with Jack Hanna
Animal expert Jack Hanna brings his “Into the Wild” show to the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda, NY for one show only on Friday, January 18th. Hanna, who is the Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio, has spent his life working with wild animals and bringing awareness to the urgency of many endangered species from the time he knew he wanted to be a zookeeper at the age of 16. His passion has led him to Rwanda many times to study and spend time with the Mountain Gorillas. His love for the gorillas set the stage for he and his wife, Suzi to purchase a home there, where they also get to spend time with the children from the orphanage and the school nearby. I was lucky enough to spend some time with Hanna recently during a phone conversation from the Columbus Zoo. This is my third time talking with the animal expert and he finished a story he started when we last spoke a couple of years ago when we were interrupted by a live radio commitment. Hanna’s show is a must see for the entire family. I had a chance to see it the last time he came to the area in 2007, and it is informative, fun and brings you up close and personal with some of the most fascinating wild life of our time. For ticket information visit: www.rivieratheatre.org For more information on Hanna visit: www.jackhanna.com
HULICK: How are you doing?
HANNA: Pretty good! I’m getting ready to come to Buffalo and see everybody.
HULICK: You do quite a few shows every year.
HANNA: Yes… last year I did about 240 shows.
HULICK: Is it hard to transport the animals?
HANNA: No. Especially to Buffalo because it’s so close. We have about 10 locations around the country that we use for animals, for instance in New York, St. Louis, Florida, California, Iowa, Texas. Also, every hotel we stay at has an exercise room for us, so we can exercise the animals.
HULICK: Does every state have different laws you have to follow?
HANNA: Exactly. We have to notify them and tell them what animals we are bringing. Ohio has some of the most stringent laws in the country for animals, so they don’t end up in somebody’s backyard.
HULICK: You must be referring to the horrible tragedy in Zanesville, Ohio in October of 2011, where a man set free 56 exotic animals he had in a makeshift zoo in his backyard before killing himself, which led to most of the animals being shot and killed by the sheriff and authorities.
HANNA: Yes, exactly. That was one of the worst days in my entire life.
HULICK: I saw you on the national news at the press conference and I could tell you were really shaken up.
HANNA: The sheriff had no other choice but to destroy the animals because it was going to be dark soon and we just couldn’t leave the animals running freely through the streets. It was a huge danger to the community. 18 of the animals that were shot were rare Bengal tigers. There are only about 1400 of these magnificent tigers in the world and we lost 18 of them that day. It was one of the worst things I have ever seen in my life. It was just tragic.
HULICK: Jack, your TV show, “Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown”, is on Saturday mornings and you won an Emmy for “Outstanding Children’s Series” for the show in 2008 and 2012.
HANNA: Yes. It’s been broadcast now for five to seven years. We were very lucky… that was our second Emmy in 3 or 4 years. Although it’s more than winning an Emmy for me, it’s an honor for the Columbus Zoo. They’re the ones that believed in the show and sponsored the show back when it started and Nationwide Insurance sponsors it now worldwide. The Columbus Zoo has always been behind me from the very beginning, supporting me. It will be my 35th year at the zoo on September 17th, 2013. It will be my 30th year appearing on Good Morning America and my 20th year as a guest on David Letterman.
HULICK: Your appearances on Letterman are hysterical! I just saw your most recent appearance where you told Dave to smell the fur of the binturong (Asian bearcat) because it smelled like popcorn and he was not at all happy to do that. He asked you if it would bite and you said, “No Dave, it’s not going to bite you”. And when Dave leaned down to smell it you yelled and said it bit you! He jumped back so fast and if you could have seen his face… (laughs)… it was hysterical!!
HANNA: Oh, yeah… I remember that! (laughs) That was funny!
HULICK: When we talked last you started telling me a story and you had to go because you were supposed to be live on a radio station. You told me to remind you about it so you could finish the story for me. So, you were traveling on an interstate and you lost your backpack that contained pretty much everything important, and as you looked into the rearview mirror you saw papers strewn all over the road.
HANNA: Yes. It was when we were doing a show in San Diego and I keep my backpack in the truck we have the animals in. Somehow it fell out of the truck onto the interstate and I watched as the guy behind us ran over it and then a truck. We pulled over and tried retrieving everything, which included my passport, my speech for the show we were going to, all my documents for the animals and my glasses… which were crushed. We never did find the backpack. When it got run over everything just burst out of it all over the interstate, but the backpack itself was no where to be found. Then like two years later I get a call from some woman in California and she said, “Are you Jack Hanna? I can’t believe this… we watch your show and your backpack is in my garage!” I couldn’t believe it! Two years later! She said she stopped and picked it up on the interstate and never looked in this little bag that was inside it that had my info in it.
HULICK: That’s incredible! Have you made any recent trips to Rwanda to see the mountain gorillas?
HANNA: Oh yes. You know we have a house there and there’s an orphanage and a school there that we visit. I never tire of seeing the gorillas. It is such an amazing experience.
HULICK: You told me in 2007 that you were probably never going to retire. Five years later, I am looking at your schedule and you are still on the go all the time.
HANNA: You’re telling me! (laughs)
HULICK: I just can’t picture you slowing down anytime soon. So retirement isn’t anywhere closer today than it was five years ago, is it?
HANNA: It isn’t looking like it.
HULICK: You and your lovely wife, Suzi, just celebrated your wedding anniversary in December.
HANNA: Yes… 44 years.
HULICK: You have such a great life Jack… married 44 years, raised a wonderful family and now watching your grandchildren grow up all while protecting and bringing awareness to all these animals all over the world.
HANNA: I’ve realized two dreams in my life Melanie. I started volunteering at our local veterinarian office at the age of 12, and I knew by the time I was 16 that I wanted to be a zookeeper. You know, people made fun of me because of my choice and my dream got interrupted a couple times- once when I went to college and then when I was drafted into the army. But I didn’t let anything or anybody stop me from realizing my dream. So after the service I went home to Tennessee and started working at the zoo there until I got an offer to become the director of a small zoo in Central Florida. It was a very small zoo, only 6 employees, but it was what I wanted to do. Then our daughter, Julie, was diagnosed with leukemia and we ended up moving back home to Tennessee. We took her to St. Jude’s hospital for treatment and a job came available at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, where one of the best St, Jude hospitals was located. So that’s how I ended up here in Columbus. St. Jude’s saved our daughter’s life. I owe everything to St. Jude’s, and for that reason my family and I are very involved in their organization. So I got to realize my dream of being a zookeeper in a much bigger way than the small zoo in Florida. My other dream was to travel outside of the U.S., all over the world, to every continent. And to be able to do that, while incorporating my love for wild life, and making a difference by bringing awareness to these amazing creatures we share on this earth… all while sharing it with my family… well, my dreams ended up being even more than I could have ever imagined.