Columbus Zoo drops some animal vendors after Jack Hanna's inclusion in 'The Conservation Game' documentary

Jack Hanna and his daughter Julie, left, and wife Suzi, right, hold a trio of 3-week-old baby cheetahs inside the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium's animal programs building in 2018.

In the wake of a new documentary that questions the way celebrity conservationists acquire exotic animals, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium says it has been making changes that address allegations raised in the film and has cut ties with wildlife vendors who do not follow certain animal-care standards.

“We made some mistakes. There's no doubt about it,” said zoo board chairman Keith Shumate in an exclusive interview with The Dispatch on Thursday. “There are things that the zoo could have done better in terms of our processes."

The changes center on the zoo's animal programs department, which manages outreach and educational programs involving animals offsite, separate from exhibit animals. The Dispatch has also learned that the zoo's longtime director of animal programs is retiring next week.

"The Conservation Game" documentary explores celebrity conservationists' involvement in the exotic pet cat trade — specifically "big cats," like tigers, lions and leopards — and their relationships with unregulated backyard breeders and roadside zoos. 

Jack Hanna, the Columbus Zoo's longtime director, who traveled across the country with animals for TV appearances, is examined in the film. 

Unregulated wildlife operations aren’t subject to the same code of ethics for animal care and breeding that most zoos follow as members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. The code, for example, says that members must "make every effort" to ensure animals "do not find their way into the hands of those not qualified to care for them properly." 

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"The Conservation Game" isn't available for viewing by the public yet, but it has gained attention amid promotion by Carole Baskin, a big-cat advocate featured last year in the Netflix series "Tiger King." There are plans for a limited release of "The Conservation Game" in theaters nationwide later this year, and that will include Ohio, its director said. 

The Dispatch has not been given access to view the documentary.

Documentary director: 'Jack Hanna's role in all of this ... is the most disturbing'

"I think what we discovered out of Jack Hanna's role in all of this, I would say, at least to me personally, is the most disturbing," director Michael Webber, who lives in the Cincinnati area, told The Dispatch on Wednesday. "I say that with a heavy heart, as an Ohioan and someone who grew up with Jack Hanna."

In an emailed statement to The Dispatch, Hanna's family said they would never try to speak for him, as Hanna has been diagnosed with dementia. The family said they have not yet viewed the documentary. 

"What we can say emphatically is that he worked his entire career to better the animal world," the statement read. "He has had a hand in some of the world’s most positive and profound zoological advancements and on-the-ground conservation efforts around the world. He has always believed that the progress that has been made was just the beginning. Zoos will continue to change and grow. We’re confident that’s what dad would want — or even demand."

The Hanna family issued a public statement on April 7, a day after "The Conservation Game" debuted at the Santa Barbara International Film Festival, that doctors had diagnosed Hanna with dementia. Doctors believed Hanna's condition had quickly progressed to Alzheimer's disease, and his family said he was withdrawing from public life. 

'Conservation Game' led to changes at Columbus Zoo

The documentary, as well as ongoing operations reviews under the zoo's new leadership in early April, brought changes, zoo officials said. 

The zoo took “a really deep look” at the institutions it works with to acquire animals for its animal programming, officials said. Among them are some of the operations called out in “The Conservation Game,” said Dr. Jan Ramer, a veterinarian and the zoo's newly named interim senior vice president of animal care and conservation.

The zoo has since cut ties with those institutions, Ramer said. She would not name the specific institutions in question and said she couldn't quantify on Thursday how many animals within the zoo's animal programs division had been acquired through those operations. 

Zoo officials did not clarify specific problems with unaccredited animal vendors, but raised concerns that they are not subject to the same animal care standards as accredited zoos. The Columbus Zoo has been a member of the nonprofit Association of Zoos and Aquariums for years.

Now the zoo will work only with animal vendors who operate within the association's code of ethics for animal care, Ramer said.

"We immediately have stopped doing business with those institutions, we have tightened our policies and procedures on any animal acquisition or moving animals back-and-forth between institutions," Ramer said.

Primates and cats also will no longer be used in programming outside of zoo grounds, Ramer said.

As part of a review of operations that began when longtime zoo director Jerry Borin took over as interim president and CEO in late March, the zoo also examined the structure of its animal programs department. In recent years, that department has reported directly to the zoo’s chief financial officer, who reported to the president and CEO. 

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That reporting structure is different than that of other zoos, in Ramer’s experience. Typically, animal programs would fall under the umbrella of animal care, which handles traditional zoo exhibit animals.

Former CFO Greg Bell and former president and CEO Tom Stalf resigned in March, following a Dispatch investigation into their personal use of zoo assets, including homes and tickets to entertainment events.

Suzi Rapp, the zoo's vice president of animal programs for many years, is retiring next Friday, Ramer said. Rapp did not return a phone call seeking comment Thursday.

The zoo has since moved the animal programs department back within the animal care department, under Ramer's supervision. 

The zoo continues to be committed to animal welfare, Ramer said.

"We’re a great institution, and we do really, really, really good work. We do good conservation work, we have one of the best teams around, dedicated teams, and those teams are proud of the work they do," she said.

"I'm really sad that 'The Conservation Game' lumps the whole zoo into some of the things that were done historically by a few individuals,” Ramer said. 

Documentary tracks Jack Hanna's, conservationists' 'big cats' from TV

"The Conservation Game" also explores the efforts of advocates of the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a proposed federal law that would restrict the private ownership of exotic cats and prohibit the public from interacting with them for petting, feeding and photo opportunities. That includes "Tiger King" stars Carole and Howard Baskin.

The proposed law most recently fizzled in 2020. It passed in the U.S. House but did not come to a vote in the U.S. Senate before the end of the legislative session. It was reintroduced in January in the House and in April in the Senate.

Michael Webber, director of "The Conservation Game" documentary, poses with Carole and Howard Baskin before a private screening of the film for lawmakers in Washington, D.C., in late June. The Baskins are big-cat activists featured last year in the hit Netflix series "Tiger King."

Ramer said previous Columbus Zoo leadership had "some reluctance" to back the proposed law. But shortly after Borin came on board, on April 23, the zoo issued a statement expressing its support for it.

"There is no one at the zoo right now who has any reluctance to sign on to the Big Cat Public Safety Act," Ramer said. She said she couldn't speak to the reason there was reluctance before, and she had just recently stepped into her role with the zoo.

Those who created the "The Conservation Game" attempted to identify, track and locate the "big cats" featured on celebrity conservationists' TV appearances and discovered that many of them later couldn't be found, Webber, the director, said. 

The film features retired Dayton-area police officer Tim Harrison, who made a "bombshell discovery" at an exotic animal auction and is "wrestling with the consequences of exposing his childhood hero," a film synopsis says.

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Harrison is the director of Outreach for Animals, a nonprofit animal advocacy group. Independently of making documentaries, Webber has worked with groups on rescues and relocations of big cats, he said. Webber directed another documentary focused on exotic animal ownership, called "Elephant in the Living Room," from 2011, which also featured Harrison.

"The genesis of the film wasn't necessarily a focus on the Columbus Zoo and Jack Hanna. The film is more broad than that," Webber said of his new film. "Unfortunately for the Columbus Zoo and for Jack Hanna, he inevitably became a central focus because of where the investigation led."

Hanna, 74, retired from his work with the zoo in December 2020. 

The zoo's director since 1978, he stepped down from its day-to-day operations in 1992 when his TV career took off and became the zoo's "director emeritus," more of a spokesman-type role.

During Hanna's tenure, the zoo and its reputation grew substantially, and he and his animals amassed fans from around the world.

Webber said he hopes his film inspires change that positively affects animals. 

"We all make mistakes. We all have a blind spot, and these things can happen," Webber said. "The question is, once it comes out, what's the best move forward? To whatever extent the zoo can make things better and do better and move forward as a better organization, I 100 percent support them in that."