Inside Heart of Africa

Emily Thompson

Jack Hanna left his heart in Africa.

"The other day, I didn't want to leave," Hanna says. He'd just returned from a trip to Rwanda, where he has a small house as well as an orphanage and three schools. "Usually I'll cry-I really will-when I know it's my last day in my Jeep leaving there. Will I get to go back? I know when I was young, in my 30s and 40s, I'd always go back. But you get older, you know, you say to yourself, 'This isn't really my last trip.' When you're 67, you think these crazy things."

Starting this summer, he won't have to travel more than 4,000 miles to get to his favorite place in the world.

"I wish everybody could go to Africa like I did," he says. "We'd have a lot less troubles in the world if everybody could see these animals. My greatest dream has been to bring Africa to people here in Central Ohio, to this part of the country. And they're going to see it. It's one of the last great things that I could possibly be involved with. We've been trying to do this the last 12 years. And we've worked very hard the last three years building this thing."

Heart of Africa, a 43-acre African savanna exhibit, is set to open at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium late this month or early next month. Much more than a designated Africa area in a building, Heart of Africa will be more like a habitat, reflecting a shift away from traditional zoo exhibits, instead replicating habitats that represent regions of the world. Highlights of the exhibit include camel rides and a giraffe-feeding area. (Giraffes will be fed only romaine lettuce available for sale, and zookeepers will switch out the giraffes and closely monitor their diets.)

Nearly 150 African animals will call the $30.4 million exhibit home, including giraffes, lions, camels, zebras, monkeys, cheetahs, rhinoceroses, warthogs, ostriches, wildebeests, aardvarks, guinea fowl, gazelles and cranes. The zoo's seven cheetahs currently used for outreach programs and the lion pride in Asia Quest will move to the new exhibit, while all other Heart of Africa animals will join the zoo's family of more than 10,000 "residents" from other zoos-not from the wild.

"Ninety-eight percent of our animals come from other zoos throughout the world because they're on breeding loans," Hanna says of programs that work to keep species going by identifying the best possible mates and zoo environments for breeding genetic diversity.

Because the zoo wanted to include in the exhibit animals from all over Africa, Heart of Africa is modeled after a general African savanna instead of one specific region.

"We wanted to combine the beauty of savannas," says Columbus Zoo CEO Tom Stalf of the exhibit, which is built around a central watering hole. "The animals don't care what border they're crossing. The northern part of the Serengeti is located in Kenya, but a giraffe and zebra could care less.

"So we sat back, and we said, 'You know, this isn't Kenya; this isn't Tanzania.' It's all of those. It's the Heart of Africa," Stalf says of the name of the exhibit they announced not-so-coincidentally on Valentine's Day.

The ideas for several of the exhibit features came from Hanna's personal experiences in Africa.

"Three years ago when they were designing this thing, they said, 'Jack, tell us what Africa is,' " Hanna says. "So I'd just sit there for like three days while people wrote down what I thought about Africa. I said, 'One thing I want, I want the smell of Africa. I want the sounds of Africa. I want to see a food court that's like the kinds in Africa, like a market. I want to see the cheetah run by.' "

During Hanna's recounts of his African adventures, he told a story about monkeys rummaging through his camp and stealing his clothes. So the designers of the exhibit planned a building designated Jack Hanna's Camp that will emulate a tent camp and house mischievous vervet monkeys.

The zoo also repurposed an old schoolhouse and airplane for Heart of Africa. In 2000, the zoo purchased the land on which the exhibit has been built-the total property spans 110 acres and was previously farmland-and a one-room schoolhouse that was used from 1891 to 1911 came with it, stationed at its original location. Because it looks like schoolhouses still used today in parts of Africa, the zoo integrated it into the backdrop of the exhibit, although the interior won't be used. They also installed a Beech Model-18 aircraft from Middletown, Ohio. Visitors will be able to board the plane and see lions just outside the windows.

When the zoo first announced plans for the exhibit, many wondered whether it would be similar to The Wilds, a 10,000-acre conservation research facility in Cumberland, Ohio, that's managed by the zoo. Although The Wilds is modeled after a safari and is home to African animals, Stalf wants to draw a clear distinction between the two.

"It's much different when we talk about The Wilds experience," he says. "The Wilds experience is 10,000 acres; this area is 43 acres. The Wilds is a savanna, a safari that you're driving through the entire time. And you're seeing animals from Africa, Asia, other places from around the world. [At Heart of Africa], it's more focusing on the cultural experience: the dance, the artisans' work, the restaurants, the feel. It's an immersion exhibit."

To bring that cultural experience to life, Heart of Africa will feature musicians playing rhythmic African music, a restaurant serving African food like kebabs alongside the zoo's regular concessions and a market selling products made by artisans in Africa, including handbags, aprons, scarves, jewelry, woodcarvings and paintings. An event space that can accommodate about 480 people features a patio that will look out over the exhibit and will be used for corporate events, weddings and more.

What does Hanna hope visitors take away from Heart of Africa? "The same thing I take away when I leave Africa. I want these people to leave here going, 'I just went to Africa. I saw the cheetah running like on National Geographic. I just saw the giraffe's tongue, and it's like 18 inches long.' "

Heart of Africa will also aid in the zoo's ongoing mission to educate visitors about conservation, Hanna says.

"The zoo is just as much about people as the animals," he says. "You have to educate people to understand conservation. We've succeeded here because it's always been fun. And that's what this will be; it's a very fun way to understand Africa.

"When [visitors] get to leave this zoo loving an animal, then we've accomplished our mission. Because if they love something, they're going to save it."