Jungle Jack Hanna: The acclaimed adventurer takes a walk on the wild side.


By Sondra Barr, LIVING WELL Magazine COVER STORY

“Yeah, I’m old.”

At 66, he may feel that way at times, but Jack Hanna (a.k.a.: Jungle Jack), beloved wildlife advocate, adventurer, and reluctant TV star, keeps pace like a cheetah on the chase. “I talk fast, too,” he says. We caught up with him––no easy feat––in what was his seventh interview of the morning.

This internationally acclaimed conservationist, author, animal TV pioneer and personality, adventurer, philanthropist, director of emeritus at Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and devoted husband, father, and grandfather navigates rough terrain and a dizzying schedule. To reach the globe’s remote corners to take a walk on the wild side, Jungle Jack and his wife of 40-plus years, Suzi, travel the globe some 280 days a year to film their escapades for the show Into the Wild. Unscripted, they deliver footage of the earth’s most exotic, endangered, and interesting species to the comfort and safety of our living rooms. Not too shabby for a guy who launched his career cleaning cages for a family veterinarian.

Today his life takes place under the glamour (and demands) of the spotlight. Still, in a way, Jungle Jack’s doing exactly what he did as a kid growing up––falling in love with and caring for animals. “Between the time when I was 11 to 16 years old, I was just cleaning cages…it’s amazing what I’ve done since then, and what zoos have become,” he says. We forget, he explains, there was a time when visitors threw peanuts at the animals, when zoos and animals weren’t given much attention or prestige.

That was before a guy named Jack helped change all that.

From Humble Zookeeper to Rock Star Status: The Columbus Zoo and Beyond  

Though his beginnings were humble, Hanna’s life, it seems, was always a bit of a zoo. At the dawn of the ’70s, Hanna linked arms for life with his college sweetheart, Suzi, and managed a small zoo in Florida. Then, after the two coped with their daughter’s life-threatening illness, they moved their young family to Ohio to accept Hanna’s dream job as director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Merging his vision with the partnership of other community leaders, Hanna spent the next 14 some years propelling the zoo to new heights. His priority was increasing attendance by offering what would now be dubbed, “edutainment” opportunities. Today, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium still bears the legacy of his ambitious fingerprint, with additions such as the Zoomezi Bay Waterpark and Jungle Jack’s Landing, and the Polar Frontier.

Beginning in the early ’80s, Hanna’s passion, personality (and, we surmise, his good looks) caught the attention of the media after he first appeared on Good Morning America. “I never wanted to do TV, by the way,” he says. But after a few guest appearances on high profile networks, the newest leg of Hanna’s career––wildlife correspondent––was set in motion.

Today, Jungle Jack’s logged 30 years introducing animals from camels to koalas across the small screen and he still appears on Good Morning America. He hosted Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures for 12 years before plunging Into the Wild, his wildly popular show that showcases Jack and his family’s adventures from Florida to Australia to Africa. He often takes opportunities to showcase those who dedicate their lives to providing shelter, rehabilitation, and refuge to wounded and endangered species. Plus, he’s landed coveted guest appearance spots on popular shows such as The Late Show with David LettermanLarry King LiveThe Ellen DeGeneres Show, among others.

“The truth is, I do a lot of speeches, and you can learn a lot from those. I can show you slides of a cheetah and give you facts and you can learn something; but when I bring in the live animal, and you actually see him, you remember him,” says Hanna. And educating people ages 3 to 103 is what fuels Jungle Jack’s momentum. Animals, he maintains, carry the instinct to survive, “but they need our help.”  And showing them on TV reaches a broad audience who will learn more about their lives, and their plights across the continents.

What could go Wrong with Live Animals on TV?

It’s the question everyone wants to ask: What could possibly go wrong when bringing live and unpredictable animals onto live TV?

“Actually, we’ve got a few funny stories. Once an ostrich kicked over a $500 lamp; another time a camel had diarrhea. Honestly, you’re not going to do TV with live animals for 30 years and not have a few things happen. Still, we don’t always talk about them. Ninety-nine percent of problems that happen are the person’s fault,” Jungle Jack insists.  In fact, it was a beaver, “a beaver, if you can believe it,” that took Hanna down. “It was 1987, and I was doing an appearance on Letterman, when the beaver bit through my thumb.” To this day, Hanna has little feeling in the inured thumb!

It’s why, he says, he does things bit differently than producers who toss out “gotcha” moments on reality TV, where handlers are bitten or injured for shock value. “First, we show respect to the animals. Our priority is the comfort of the animal, and the safety of the person. When we cross each other’s comfort zone, that’s when train wrecks happen.  It’s why we’ve been able to do what we’ve been doing on TV for 30 years,” he says. By the shape and tone of his fit, tan physique, and his boundless energy, it’s hard to imagine Jungle Jack’s been at this for so long, but he considers it our collective responsibility to help save the species most in danger of extinction. “Some of them you won’t remember by name, but it’s critical we save the icon animals first––the elephants and tigers and black rhinos. They’re ambassadors to their cousins. In 1978, there were 60,000 black rhinos, and today, there are just 2,000. They’re wanted simply for their horns––Osama bin Laden had one as a dagger handle, for example. It’s crazy.”

Living the Dream and a Passion for Helping the Human Animal

As one of the legions of Facebook fans put it, Hanna really is a “Jack of all Trades.” At 66, how does Hanna keep up the frenetic pace––globe-trotting, filming, making live TV appearances, writing books, raising funds, and serving at his beloved Columbus Zoo? He and Suzi stay fit by taking long walks every day. His approach to wellness is all about balance and common sense; he’ll enjoy steak and beer, but only in moderation. But, he says, his vigor also stems from the fact he’s living his dream.

Jack Hanna’s carved his own place in history elevating the status of the animals with whom we share the planet, dedicating his time, treasure and talent to raising awareness to bolster their dwindling numbers. Yet, you may not know he’s also a committed humanitarian––and he’s got a special place in his heart for children who are seriously ill.

Back in 1977, his then 2-year-old daughter, Julie, was diagnosed with leukemia. “We were introduced to St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital, and it changed our lives,” he says.  “Back in those days, I’d return to the hospital to find all 10 of the children on the floor had died.”

It was then that a young, grateful father vowed he’d always help raise money for St. Jude.  “Today, they’ve made huge strides in saving children,” he says. In 1995, Julie suffered a brain tumor and endured a massive surgery and recovery. It was doubtful she’d be able to graduate from college, but she did, and today, she works in the promotions department at Columbus Zoo, and often travels with her father around the world. Jack says he thinks about the families who lost their children, and he’s so grateful to have Julie here today.  His family also includes daughters Kathaleen, Suzanne, and their own husbands and broods––his biggest source of pride and joy.

As he contemplates his own life and legacy, Hanna puts it this way: “When I leave this earth, I want people to say I helped people.” After all, humans are just one more in a long line of animals to whom he’s dedicated his life.