From the Archives: The Life and Fast Times of Jack Hanna

Emily Foster
The November 1985 cover of Columbus Monthly

Editor’s note: The Columbus Zoo’s director emeritus announced last week that he will step back at the end of this year from his public duties after four decades of charismatic TV appearances and visionary leadership. In 1985, Columbus Monthly profiled Hanna just as his star was beginning to rise.  

"You love being around the man.

"He'a heck of a nice guy.

"Aoutstanding person.

"He'person who gives joy to others.”

“Everyone likes Jack Hanna." 

What's Columbus Zoo director Jack Hanna got that makes him wear so well after seven years of cloying praise and unrelenting celebrity?

Laurie Lennard, a producer of the "David Letterman Show," on which Hanna has appeared three times, may have part of the answer to Hanna's sustained popularity. She regards him from the viewpoint of a television veteran who's seen stars come and go. "There's always an air of confusion and hysteria around Jack," she says, laughing. Now we're getting somewhere. This sounds like a guy who's a little more interesting and a little less good, a man who's vulnerable and sympathetic.His history in Columbus bears out Lennard's observation. Take a few slices from Jack Hanna's recent life:

  • Debbie Casto, zoo marketing director, likes to tell about the time Hanna captured the snow leopards. Almost. After the snow leopards arrived at the zoo, they spent some time routinely quarantined in a zoo barn: When their confinement was over, their keepers were understandably reluctant to go in and bring them out. The zoo veterinarian was about to tranquilize them for removal when Hanna arrived and roared, "You guys are all chicken. I'll go in." Wrapping himself from head to toe in chain-link fencing, he started into the barn: "Well, you can't walk wrapped in chain-link fence," Debbie Casto comments dryly, “but most of all you can't catch a snow leopard.” The inevitable happened. Hanna toppled over, couldn't get up, and had to be dragged out of harm's way by his feet.
  • Casto also recounts that when Hanna arrived as zoo director he was assigned a much-used city vehicle as his official car. One day, while Hanna was driving across O'Shaughnessy Dam, a door fell off his official car onto the pavement. Hanna screeched to a halt, picked up the door, slung it onto the back seat, and continued to drive around in the car for weeks until the zoo had received so many complaints from the public that the Zoo Association bought him a less embarrassing model. 
  • Zoo employee Karin Johnson once showed up to pay a fine at Columbus traffic court with an 80-pound cheetah in tow. Shocked court officials refused to let her in. Why did she bring a cheetah to court? Hanna told her to, of course. She had to take it to a publicity appearance later that morning at the Hyatt Regency, and she couldn't just lock it in the car, Hanna reasoned; it belongs to an endangered species.
  • In New York City for one of his David Letterman Show appearances, Hanna was checking into the swank Berkshire Hotel when the desk clerk remarked brightly, “Oh, you must be in town for the Letterman Show." "Actually,”said Hanna, hauling a giant Madagascar cockroach out of his pocket, “I'm here for a cockroach race tomorrow in Madison Square Garden." Ignoring the sounds of screaming and fainting around him, he explained, "This one—Henry—runs a little to the right. But this one,” and he pulled out another, "is a winner." 
  • When a cat gave birth in a city sanitation truck earlier this year, workers couldn't get the Capital Area Humane Society to retrieve the new family, so they called Jack Hanna. Hanna rushed to the scene with a cat-carrying case.
  • Last April, birdwatcher Joe Brown spotted a sparrow hawk tangled up in a kite string in a tree high above the Olentangy River behind Chemical Abstracts. Brown told the police, the police called Hanna and the fire department. Hanna ascended 50 feet in a cherry picker while the hawk's mate circled frantically. He grabbed the struggling captive and snipped him loose. Far below a cop shook his head in wonder at American willingness to treat animals almost better than people. 

Jack Hanna, it seems, is a one-man band. He's not just the celestial harp section, he's also Professor Harold Hill's seventy-six trombones and the big bass drum. Things get all stirred up when he's around. In the way that some people spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e, and their friends duck when they see them coming, Hanna spells a-c-t-i-o-n. He's a powerful magnet for television cameras, reporters' pens, devoted volunteers and generous checks. Columbus and the Columbus Zoo have never been quite the same since Hanna hit town, and the adventure is far from over. Despite the lure of the TV lights, it looks as if the man may actually stick around. 

Back in the mid '70s when Ed Dorsa was a CETA worker there, the ColumbusZoo was "a real zoo," Dorsa says, and he doesn't mean that as a compliment. “The only thing on the other side of Rt. 257 was the bird pond. It was just real mediocre in everything. It was an old-boy organization and there wasn't any professionalism.” The zoo had been around ever since the Dispatch Printing Company had given seven Alaskan reindeer to the city in 1926 and offered to build them shelters out on some city-owned property near O'Shaughnessy Dam. Since then, in spite of producing the first gorilla born in captivity, the zoo had often languished from official inattention. By Dorsa's time, as he remembers, morale was low, but change was in the air. 

"Mel Dodge made a commitment to the zoo at that point, and Jack was the result,” he recalls. 

"We were looking for Jack Hanna, and we found him," admits Mel Dodge, legendary former head of the city's Recreation and Parks Department. In 1977 the zoo operations were given to his department, and if there's anything Dodge can'do in Columbus, it's to leave well enough alone.

Hanna was one of 40 or 50 contendersfor the job of director of Dodge's "new" zoo. He hailed from a farm near Knoxville, Tennessee, where, according to several sources, his animal mania surfaced early. Dodge says that Hanna's father used to complain that after Jack hit high school age the elder Hannas didn't dare go on vacation for fear there would be lions or elephants in the barn when they got back. 

When Hanna returned to Knoxville with his bride Suzi after getting a bachelor's degree from Muskingum College, Hanna ran a pet store and petting zoo for a while. Then some really bad luck caught him. First, a tragedy: A 5-year-old boy, through no fault of Hanna's, had his arm bitten off by Jack's lion. Then illness: Hanna caught hepatitis from a chimp and spent a month in the hospital.”

 With his animal businesses closed, Hanna was picked up by Guy Smith Jr., director of the Knoxville Zoo, and given his first taste of zoo management from the ground up. Sharon Abercrombie, now a reporter for the Columbus Citizen-Journal, happened to be on the zoo beat in Knoxville back in 1967-68. Until Smith and Hanna cleaned it up, Knoxville had what she calls “a barnyard zoo." She remembers curator Jack Hanna "shoveling up" after the animals and driving around in an old pickup truck begging day-old bread for them. 

Guy Smith apparently was a man after Hanna's own heart, a showman who turned 28 years in television to good use as a zoo director. As Mel Dodge tells it, Smith's promotional philosophy is, "Never go talk to people about the zoo without an animal in tow."Smith says he took on the zoo as part of an agreement with the city of Knoxville to house his pet lion cub, Joshua, who had become too old to stay at home. 

Between them, Smith and Hanna worked to create a zoo out of an ill kept menagerie. Today, the KnoxvilleZoo, like the one in Columbus, is among America's 25 zoos fully accredited by the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA). 

Meanwhile, Hanna was hired away to Sanford, Florida, for a short stint with "a tiny little zoo right in the center of town," as Smith remembers, that needed a dynamic zookeeper who could raise money and, in effect, make wine out of water. To help with the miracle, Hanna got his friend Stan Brock, co-host of Marlin Perkins's "Wild Kingdom," to run barefoot over 150 miles of Central Florida as a stunt. 

Having set the Central Florida Zoo on its way with money and a new location, Hanna returned once more to Knoxville to become vice president of Stan Brock Wilderness Adventures. It was here that the search committee for the Columbus Zoo board found him.

Blaine Sickles, who was on the search committee and is still a zoo board member, recalls vividly, now that Hanna was by no means a shoo in for the job. At 31, Hanna had his youth against him. 

"But what we saw was good," Sickles goes on. "The search committee, decided Jack was the guy, but we knew some board members would be hesitant. We knew anyone [we hired] would have to get along with Mel Dodge. So we got Jack into town, got him into a car; and drove him down to the Armory [the Cultural Arts Center], where he met Mel on the steps. Then we went to One Nation for lunch. It became apparent right away that Jack and Mel communicated really well.” But at the board meeting that followed, the search committee met resistance to hiring so young a man at the salary they had in mind. Sickles laughs, remembering how "Jack was prancing around outside and becoming a basket case." Finally, the search committee toughed it out, promising to throw the whole question back in the laps of the board, and opposition collapsed. "Now there's nobody who isn't in his corner," Sickles claims. 

So Hanna had a package he liked. It was the kind of zoo situation he was getting good at, and Columbus offered expert medical attention at Children's Hospital for his daughter Julia's leukemia (now in remission).

"At first there was nowhere to go but up," Hanna says of his arrival in Columbus. "For 19 months I never left this zoo—I'm talking Christmas and Easter, too. Zoo employees had bets that I'd never make it." 

The proof of how he and the Columbus Zoo have made it is out by O'Shaughnessy Dam for all to see. Once there were a few wretched buildings huddled together by the river, all painted different colors. Hanna himself admits, "Oh, yes, I was embarrassed my first three years here to take anybody on the other side of the zoo [from the administration building], going by the old buildings. I'd do anything to avoid it.” In seven years, with Mel Dodge behind him, Hanna has carried out a $4.6 million capital improvements program that has included a new herbivore-carnivore complex, a North American exhibit and the Gorilla Villa, as well as an amphitheatre and other facilities. Attendance has shot up from 342,000 in 1978 to somewhere in the neighborhood of 800,000 this year. Hanna brags that the zoo now is the fourth largest crowd pleaser in the state, trailing only the State Fair, King's Island and Cedar Point in attendance. 

Debbie Casto ticks off her own list of statistics. Columbus Zoo has the finest reptile house in the world, and it is one of the few zoos with an amphibian house, she says; it is the only zoo housing five generations of gorillas, the offspring of the famous breeding program that began in the '50s; it has the largest cheetah collection (19) and the only male pygmy forest elephant in captivity; it is one of only four zoos to breed bald eagles successfully, a couple of which have been released into the wild.

And while all this has been coming about, Jack Hanna, by a unique combination of accident and design, has bloomed into a full-fledged celebrity, the darling of the David Letterman Show and a regular guest on Bloopers and Practical Jokes and Good Morning America. The zoo board and Mel Dodge could never have predicted they would get more than just a better zoo out of Hanna, but they have gotten more, and they like it.

Back in 1978, everyone agreed that the zoo needed public awareness in order to get public support. Dodge says those were the days when people had to be asked to be members of the zoo board because, “People don't want to be part of something that's average." (Hanna, too, got the picture when he flew to Columbus and discovered that neither the airplane pilot nor a local taxi driver had ever heard of a zoo here.) Hence, the search for a zoo director of the Guy Smith type. 

"You can't fund-raise until you get the product right," Hanna says."You can't sell a hamburger until it looks good." But the hamburger he set out to sell was still pretty raw, with no extras. The zoo in its rundown state really wasn't much of an attraction. What he sold successfully and with increasing confidence was himself. While he bridles at the term "publicity hound," Hanna asserts, "If it's for the zoo, I'll do it." 

If it worried him at first, it now is a source of pride that "we've never spent one penny on advertising ... Cincinnati has a budget of $300,000 for their advertising." He is quick to express gratitude to the media for their attention, but of course the point is that he himself has attracted the attention. Robert Wagner, director of the AAZPAcalls Hanna "a public relations person personified." Reporter Sharon Abercrombie says, "He always gives you a story, and it's not manufactured." Naturally. Who could manufacture the Great Cockroach RaceAs Guy Smith says—and who should know better?—"It helps tremendously to be insane in the zoo business.” 

Fearless of overexposure, Hanna has been seen and heard here, there and everywhere since he first laid siege to Columbus. Time was when he never turned down an invitation to speak—at Kiwanis or Rotary meetings, grade-school assemblies, graduation exercises, a television show for WARL of Upper Arlington High School, almost anywhere that two or more people gathered in the zoo's name. And he always took a zoo animal along. For two years he and his daughter Kathy co-hosted one of the better locally produced television shows, Hanna's Ark. When Channel10 dropped it with a thud in 1983, Hanna was publicly disappointed, but now he says diplomatically, "The way things worked out were for the best."  

In 1978, his first year on the job, Hanna gave 64 speeches, moved the popular gorillas to better quarters in the old pachyderm house, got new zoo uniforms and allowed the gorillas to be filmed for a National Geographic television special. In 1979 he hosted the Columbus Symphony at a July zoo concert, publicized a Name-the-Gorilla contest for a fourth generation baby (Cora) and rescued a cat from O'Shaughnessy Dam. Two years of good, cheap publicity. The rescue mission benefited more than just the cat, for Hanna has made the papers again and again since then by pulling a puppy from an air-conditioning duct in the middle of the night and other feats of humanity.

As the zoo programs and physical plant improved (thanks to Dodge's influence, a federal grant and 18-hour days by the zoo director), Hanna also became more sophisticated and wide ranging in his publicity efforts, making ever more television appearances, greeting visiting dignitaries at the airport with exotic zoo animals, leading well-publicized safaris or fact-finding trips abroad and keeping in constant touch with the media. In 1983 he almost became a cropper with one homegrown brainstorm. And he's almost sorry. 

"It was wrong," he says, and then half takes it back, "It wasn't wrong from the standpoint of what I did, it was probably wrong for the whole zoo world. Not for Columbus, but for people who are trying to understand zoos.” 

It was a vintage Hanna event, heralded with great fanfare. On May 15, circus performer Enrico Wallenda of the Great Wallendas walked a tightrope over a pit of Bengal tigers. "I had 15,000 people in the zoo that day, one of the biggest days we've ever had," Hanna says, still savoring the public relations triumph. The AAZPA, however, was livíd. "I almost got called before the ethics committee," he admits.  

AAZPA chief Robert Wagner still pronounces his view of the stunt with a good deal of vigor: "We hold that that is total and complete exploitation of the Bengal tigers. It could have resulted in serious injury or death to the performer, and also the inappropriate and uncalled-for death of one of the cats. It showed man's dominion over the animals, totally related to showmanship and the circus, not to the standards of zoo keeping." Having once more read the riot act, Wagner softens: "I'm an optimist. The good that came out of that bad situation was that Jack Hanna learned his lesson about our standard of ethics for zoos and zoo keeping." 

Maybe. But he still ain't got no respect. Blaine Sickles says that when Hanna was asked what he would have done if Wallenda had taken a dive into the tiger pit, Hanna cracked that he guessed he'd just have to shoot one or the other—leaving it entirely an open question whether it would be the Wallenda or the tiger.  

Sickles says of him, "You never know what he's going to say next," and part of Hanna's undeniable charm surely is his unpredictability. He is almost a match for the animals he squires around. "He's famous for always getting bitten and always losing animals," Casto says. Once he carried a crow to the Letterman Show; it flew out into the studio audience and refused to come back. Hanna took this mutiny with aplomb but vowed to bring along next time a vulture that would retrieve the crow. On the New York trip when he pulled the giant cockroaches from his pocket in the lobby of the BerkshireHotel, he later was summoned sternly from his room by the hotel manager. One floor below a distraught guest was standing on her bed in hysterics while one of Hanna's roaches moseyed about her room. "You bad boy," Hanna scolded, scooping up the four-inch-long offender, "I told you not to leave my pocket.” Oddly enough, Hanna still is welcome at the Berkshire. Could it be that, in spite of cockroaches in his pockets, he really has what Robert Wagner calls“gentlemanly charisma”? 

Trying to pinpoint the basis for his star status on the Letterman Show ("one of our favorite guests,"she declares), Laurie Lennard analyzes the Hanna appeal. "He's unaware of himself and the effect he has on people," she explains. "He's completely natural. A lot of times people try too hard to be funny. He works well with Dave because he's sincere." She thinks some more. “He doesn't do anything; it's the way things come out of his mouth." 

His trademark safari suits have become better quality since the producers of Hanna'General Store on Qube noticed the shabby state of his clothes and bought him several Christian Dior jungle suits. His zoo friends gave him so much guff about those that now he buys real ones in Africa. He's also been talked into abandoning polyester pants, although he clings jealously to his Hush Puppies. He's shed his eyeglasses and 30 pounds of excess weight, and his official car looks respectable. He's even a little sensitive about being considered "the guy who shovels shit" by black-tie. snobs he's run into. “I can wear a coat and tie. I've got a tux," he protests. But despite everyone's efforts to spruce him up, he's still the fellow who shows up at “21” in New York wearing a golf shirt.

Laurie Lennard visited the Ohio State Fair in August as a guest of the Hannas. She found the experience eye-opening. "Everybody—ticket takers at toll booths and people at the airport—everybody wanted his autograph and wanted to say hello. It was like walking around with Warren Beatty." Will such adulation spoil Jack Hanna? Will his celebrity safari become an ego trip? Right now those who seem to know him well shout a resounding "No!""I really believe him when he says he does it for the zoo," Lennard insists, and adds, “I deal with people on ego trips all the time."

"You will seldom hear Jack Hanna use the word 'I,'” Dodge contends, and board member Sickles says, "He never asks for anything for Jack Hanna." Reporter Sharon Abercrombie echoes their sentiments: "Motives are always a mixed bag. But whatever he does, he does do for the animals." 

And what does Jack Hanna say?

"The zoo is first. If promoting Jack Hanna promotes the zoo, I'll do it.” 

One guy he admires is David Letterman, because he "operates the show like I operate the zoo. The show is his life. He respects the people he works with. He doesn't go for all the glamour of TV." 

Hanna still is a workaholic on behalf of the zoo, as he was and probably always will be. "I don't separate work from my personal life," he claims. Twenty-four hours a day he carries a radio that keeps him in touch with all sections of the zoo. For rare summer mini-holidays he retreats to one of the state parks. "On Sunday night I can leave here at 10 o'clock, arrive at Deer Creek at 11:15, leave Monday night or Tuesday morning. And while I'm gone Mel Dodge or somebody will call, and later say, 'How's your vacation?' ” Even he finds irony in the fact that for him, such a small getaway is, indeed, a "vacation.” Anyone meeting him can see that he is, as he says, a "Type A” personality, who burns like a Roman candle within human and compulsive energy. "I probably won't last past 40," he says with grisly good humor.  

At 37, though, he needs more time. He just signed another two-year contract with the zoo board. He is working on a secret new publicity deal that will throw all the others in the shade, he implies. His Christmas list of wants for the zoo is long, and includes a new aquarium, a tram system, a bear exhibit, a new aviary, an upgraded North American animals exhibit and—not least—the passage of a 0.025 mill tax levy in November. 

No, there'sstill lots of future for Jack Hanna. Emphatically, he insists that it will be in Columbus. 

"I swore I would never call anything but Knoxville, Tennessee, my home. But now I don't even refer to Knoxville—other than my accent. I don't want to go back there, ever. This is my home now. I thought I'd never, ever say that. The people here have been so good to me, the zoo, my family. I can never pay them back. I'd like to have a big party—but there'd be almost 2,000 people.”

This story originally appeared in the November 1985 issue of Columbus Monthly.


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