Jack Hanna Interview: Inside the Mind and Heart of the Animal Kingdom's Best Friend
Image attributed to Rick Prebeg
Jack Hanna got his first job when he was eleven years old working for the family veterinarian in Knoxville, Tennessee, and developed a great respect and love for all animals. In 1978, the Knoxville, Tennessee native was named director of the Columbus Zoo after answering an advertisement. His first appearance on Good Morning America was in 1983 when the invitation to appear came after the birth of baby twin gorillas at his zoo and, he has been a regular guest and wildlife correspondent ever since.
The first time the animal expert appeared on Late Show with David Letterman was in 1985, and Hanna is a frequent guest visiting Dave several times a year. Other television appearances include Larry King Live, The Ellen DeGeneres Show, Hollywood Squares, The Maury Show, Entertainment Tonight, FOX News, CNN programs and various other news programs as a wildlife correspondent. The animals Hanna brings on TV shows are ambassadors to their cousins in the wild and are cared for by professionals.
"I don’t look at myself any differently than when I was growing up on a farm. I don’t let television effect me at all. I fly tourist and drive regular cars. I don’t like the word 'celebrity.' I’m a 'character' or maybe an 'ambassador' for the animal world. I talk to people and sign autographs at airports. I just love talking to people."
Hanna’s own television shows are Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures (1993-2008), Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild (2007) and Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown (2011). He and Suzi have three daughters, Kathaleen, Suzanne and Julie, and Hanna is currently the Director Emeritus at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium located in Powell, Ohio. The Columbus Zoo is home to over 9,000 animals representing over 700 species, and the animal exhibits are divided into regions of the world.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jack, you are one busy guy! What are your duties as Director Emeritus at the Columbus Zoo?
Jack Hanna: I’ve been in meetings today about opening up our new “Heart of Africa” exhibit in May. This will be the largest one in the country and has taken three years to build. I usually start my day here at 7:30 or 8:00, and my whole life runs out of the zoo. I’m only here at the zoo 65 days a year. The rest of the time I’m on the road and was on the road 210 days last year. But I’m in touch with the zoo on a daily basis no matter where I am in the world … if I have cell contact.
On my desk right now is a bunch of books to sign, and I’ll just sit here until midnight tonight in my office until that’s done, also working on notes for speeches that I do around the country and sometimes there are days filled with interviews. I don’t have a television or anything in here, and I don’t have a computer. I’m not proud of the fact that I don’t have a computer, but that’s just the way my life is run. Thankfully, I have three great people here to help me, and their doors are always open. We communicate through the doors (laughs).
I do the best I can in signing personal items. We have many sick children that write the zoo from all over the country. We answer every piece of fan mail. Everyone has gotten a reply from someone here. I make sure of that because when I was a boy, I wrote Marlin Perkins on Wild Kingdom. I never heard back from him. I never forgot that. I never forgot it as long as I have lived. So I make a point to try to sign the things that are sent to us.
I’m on the executive board and helped hire the new CEO who’s like a son to me. We have about 2,400 employees, but when I was here in the early days, there were about 40 employees (laughs). Anyway, we are also constantly busy with our television shows and appearing on other shows like Anderson Cooper 360, Fox & Friends, Good Morning America, and we’re in our 29th year with Late Show with David Letterman.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Tell me about the Jack Hanna animal television shows.
Jack Hanna: Our first show was Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures, and that was on for 12 years. It was one of the longest running animal shows on television. My daughter, Kathaleen was my co-host for several years until she married and moved to the UK. She got married and had babies, so that screwed up the whole show (laughs).
I started my own show called Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild, which continued Animal Adventures. My wife Sue didn’t want to be on television, but she is just a natural and has done a good job for the last six years on that show. Kathaleen now has her kids in school and will start taking over and helping me with Into the Wild, and eventually if she wants to, she can do that show. That show takes us around the world.
We just got back from Africa filming the lowland gorillas, filming the forest elephants (very rare animals), the mandrill (an ape with a colorful butt and face), hippos that surf in the ocean and sea turtles. Those are all on eight shows that will come on this fall. On Into the Wild, we bring people the animal world in a fun way. It’s an educational way also, but we don’t put that word first. You want to teach the average person about the animal world and take them to places. We do the show so that they might think one day they could go to Antarctica or Australia.
I wish everyone could go to places like that, but the sad thing is, they can’t. It’s probably not affordable plus people may not want to visit the places we go to that are so far in the jungle with no bathrooms and amenities. But I try to bring it to them and for them to see a family going out there is important. Into the Wild isn’t just about animals, but about cultures as well. That’s why it works.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Jack, are there American zoos that slaughter healthy animals just because their genes are not needed? I’m referring to the recent killing of a two-year-old giraffe at the Copenhagen Zoo in Denmark. I believe they also euthanized four lions on the grounds of “genetic purity and conservation.”
Jack Hanna: To my knowledge, no. If there is one, I can tell you that the Columbus Zoo will never have anything to do with that zoo. We will have nothing to do with that zoo in Denmark whatsoever. I recently heard that the European Zoo Association supports it. Until I find out definitely, we won’t have anything to do with other European zoos. You don’t support anyone who has those practices.
Ninety-eight percent of our animals are born in zoos, not the wild as some animal rights people want you to think they are. They are born in zoos. We do not take them from the wild. If I have to go get a giraffe or cheetah, I take a veterinarian and collect the sperm or the egg from the animal. We’re not cloning. What we do in the zoo world today as far as animals would blow your mind. I can’t even get into all the things we do here for our gene pools because it’s incredible. But you never ever put down an animal born into a zoo or brought in from another zoo. That animal is your animal for life unless it goes on a breeding loan to another zoo. This excuse of “no room” is just that, an excuse.
We raised some money. There’s a person in Europe who raised a half a million dollars to make sure he didn’t kill another giraffe. Someone said to me, “Jack, this guy must be the Hitler of the animal world in Europe.” By the way, you had to hear him (Bengt Holst) talk. I was on Anderson Cooper 360. He got to say what he wanted to say, and I said what I wanted to say.
Anderson asked the guy, “Have you put down animals like this before?” Holst said, “Of course I have.” The tone of how he said it shocked me. Anderson asked, “Do you plan to do this in the future?” He answered, “Oh yeah. I’m going to do more very shortly.” Anderson said, “What? Did you see the worldwide response of the people and what they’re saying about your zoo and your country?” Holst goes, “Sure we did. But we have a different culture here than the Americans and other people do.” Anderson said, “Really? A different culture?” He answered, “Yeah. Families learn a lot about how we took that giraffe and shot him in the head. We fed him his favorite meal before shooting him, and he was drug out there for them to watch.”
Anderson showed him a clip of the kids and families that watched. The kids had sweaters around their faces, their jackets pulled up over their heads. Anderson asked, “You say that’s education? Are you looking at what I’m looking at right now?” Holst said, “Yes. But that’s only what some of the people are doing.” I just sat there thinking, “This is so hard to believe.”
So I’m telling you all this in order to answer your question. If I know of any other zoo that does this, we will not have one thing to do with them. Of course, animals take up room in our zoos, but just because you need a place for your grandson, do you shoot your sick grandfather for taking up space in your house? See where I’m coming from? You just don’t do that. Like my dad taught me, if you want a dog, I’ll get you a dog, but that dog is yours for the rest of your life. It’s a living creature.
When we bring an animal to our zoo, that animal lives here his entire lifetime or on breeding loan to another place. We have 10,000 acres here in Ohio called the Wilds, the largest conservation center on the North American continent. My goal in life before I retire is to take the Wilds and make it partly a retirement community for animals from other zoos throughout this country and the world.
But when that giraffe was put down, I couldn’t believe it like most of the world couldn’t believe it. I did every show I could do. Someone asked me how I would describe that action. I came up with the words “abominable” and “unbelievable.” But I can’t really come up with a word strong enough to describe the atrocity.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There are no words.
Jack Hanna: There are no words.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): As there are no words that can describe animal abuse in general.
Jack Hanna: I’ve seen animal abuse all over the world, and it’s the hardest thing for me to see. I’ve also seen people die all over the world in these places I visit. In Franklin County here in Columbus, Ohio, if someone is arrested for animal abuse or being checked by the human society for animal abuse, you know what happens? It’s reported to either the police or child services.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The inference there is if a person would do that to an animal…
Jack Hanna: Eighty percent of the time, they find out those people also have done some harm to a family member. It makes sense, doesn’t it? If you’re going to tie up a dog in the backyard and beat him to death, you may think of something like that to do to your child. That’s one way in Columbus we’re trying to get some control over child abuse as well.
I appreciate that in some cultures in the world, some of this isn’t abuse. Animals just lying in the streets are just a part of their culture. But hopefully through education, they’ll see that the world is changing. People ask me to go to places they know animal abuse exists, and I will do that, but on Into the Wild, we have kids watching, and I don’t want them seeing a dog that’s skin and bones lying in the yard with no water. I don’t want to show that to children right now.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There are people that say, “The only good snake is a dead snake.”
Jack Hanna: You can’t imagine the tens of thousands of people that have told me that. Some of them are deathly afraid of snakes. They start sweating and can’t control themselves. They really are terrified of snakes. But, snakes were made by the good Lord or nature because of what they need to do on earth. The rattlesnake rattles to keep you away, but some people hear the rattle and tries to get closer, and that’s when they can get hurt.
Every animal has a particular purpose on the planet. We may not like some of those purposes, but they’re all necessary for us to exist.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have a Letterman appearance coming up, Jack?
Jack Hanna: Yep. Monday, May 19.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have any special animals to show him?
Jack Hanna: Yeah, my favorite animal, my wife (laughs). Just kidding. You know, it’s hard to believe, but in all the years I’ve been on that show, I have never really talked to Dave before or after the show, and I’m the longest running guest. I’ve appeared four or five times since 1985. But I’ve never really talked to him before or after the show in those 28 years. Not because he’s mean. He’s not. It’s just one of those things.
Dave is a very giving person. He’s very private, and that’s his prerogative to be private. You’ve got to know him to understand him. I know him from the show obviously, and the way we are on the show is we’re very close. During the breaks, we talk a lot. We don’t pick up the phone and talk or go to each other’s houses. Nothing. But I know what he does for people. I know what he does for communities. I know what he does for children and for hospitals. I know he does a great deal that people don’t know about. We’re good friends on the show, very close friends. You don’t have a relationship like this for 28-29 years unless you can work together.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): It appears that you two are having a good time.
Jack Hanna: Well, the way we work together is to banter back and forth. He tears me apart all the time, which is like playing a football game. It’s like you’re trying to match wits with the best comedian in the business. He’s the best. He’s the quickest. Some people have told me that sometimes he’s too much or too raw. That’s up to Dave as to how he wants to be with me. We have a fun time.
People have come up to me saying that they watch me on Letterman and their grandkids do, too. I think, “Oh dear God. I don’t believe this. Some guy’s grandkids are watching me now.” They remind me of what animal I had on the show. I never would’ve remembered that, so those statements tell me that they actually learned something. Letterman is a different show to watch because they’re learning in a different way. Good Morning America, Larry King, Ellen and The Talk are all different from each other, and learning about the animals is different on each one.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have become quite a celebrity over the past 30 years Jack.
Jack Hanna: I don’t look at myself any differently than when I was growing up on a farm. I don’t let television effect me at all. I fly tourist and drive regular cars. I don’t like the word “celebrity.” I’m a “character” or maybe an “ambassador” for the animal world. I talk to people and sign autographs at airports. I just love talking to people.
Maybe that’s why our shows have worked because I try to present the animal world to each of those TV audiences in a way I know they can understand, in a way they can have fun listening to me, but in a way they can also learn something. Out of 30 something years of doing this stuff, I now can say to myself, “Jack, we really have taught some people about the animal world. We really have taught them something.” That’s the key to the whole thing.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What is the message you want to convey about the animal kingdom?
Jack Hanna: It’s very simple. It’s one phrase. “Touch the heart to teach the mind.” It’s what we live by.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And that means …
Jack Hanna: When people come to our zoo or listen to my speeches or watch a TV show, have I touched their hearts to teach their minds? I hopefully have done that. I’m not saying that’s easy to do, but you have to be able to communicate that message because unless you end up loving what you do or love that giraffe, elephant or snake, you cannot tell someone else about it. That’s the whole key to my success I guess because of that one phrase. I think I touch the heart at the same time I touch the mind, so that’s just something I try to live by.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Do you have time just to relax?
Jack Hanna: I have a cabin in Montana where I hike in the backcountry. That’s the biggest thing I do for myself. My wife and I backpack and hike by ourselves with the animals and nature, and we just get away sometimes for several days at a time. I have a small house in Rwanda. I didn’t build it for us. I built it for the country.
I’m just as much a people person as I am an animal person. You know about the genocide there in 1994 where about a million people got hacked to death in less than 90 days? After that happened, kids by the thousands were in the street, some with no arms, some with no legs. I won’t even get into it. It was so bad. They had no parents. We brought over 300 to our orphanage. We have built three schools.
The schools are for those kids that are physically challenged, and they don’t want to stay in the streets and beg. Our classrooms are full of kids with Down syndrome. We have specialists there in the classes. There is one big school with different classrooms for the blind, deaf, mentally challenged, physically challenged kids, and even adults are going there now.
The Columbus Zoo and I spend a lot of time and money in Rwanda because it’s not corrupt. The president is a close friend of mine, and the advancement there is phenomenal. Rwanda is the safest, most democratic, cleanest country in Africa. We spend a lot of time there, and our lives are dedicated to that part of the world. There are only about 700 mountain gorillas remaining on earth, and they are there, so we see them when we go and work with the schools in the country. That’s where a lot of our free time is spent.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Did I hear you say something about retiring?
Jack Hanna: I toy with it once in a while, but every time I really think about it, I say that I can’t retire because I love what I do so much. I really do. A lot of people can’t wait to retire. But my life is based on the Columbus Zoo. The zoo and I have been there for 36 years. It’s my life. I love traveling the world and bringing people to the animal world.
I don’t know when that retirement day is going to come. I wish I could plan that way because at this age, you want to plan for the future. But right now I don’t have any intentions of doing that. I know I have to cut back on some things, which might be some of my speeches or travels, but I’ll still be filming the shows. I’d like to see my daughter and grandkids in England more.
A year ago I had a physical done in Montana, and the doctor said, “Jack, you have one problem.” I asked, “What’s that?” She said, “Take your mouth and go like this.” I was following what she was doing because I thought she was serious, but the doctor was trying to shape my mouth into the word, “No.” She asked, “Can you say that?” Well, it actually made me mad, and I said, “What are you telling me? How are you doing to say ‘no’ to the children coming to the zoo because it’s their last wish?”
A father brought his daughter here to the zoo about four months ago. I knew the signs of chemotherapy because our daughter has had brain tumors since she was three years old, and she’s 37 now. Everyone has their own issues in life, but I know about children’s hospitals. Anyway, this man’s daughter was 12 years old, and she came to the zoo in a wheelchair. You could tell by her puffed up appearance she was going through cancer treatments. He told me that she always wanted to meet me. This happens several times a year, but this girl was special.
Everyone one of them is special, but I mean “special” by what her dad said. It was hard for the girl to smile and she was perspiring, but I took her to the building to have her see some of the animals. I let her hold a little penguin and showed her dad a place for her to wash her hands. The little girl’s father said, “Mr. Hanna, she doesn’t have to wash her hands. Her hands will be washed later.” And he looked up at the sky as if to motion toward heaven.
When he said that, I damn near lost it, and sure enough, she passed away eight days after she left here. That affected me so much that I still think about it daily. That is the epitome of what I do. Hundreds of mentally disabled kids come to hear my speeches and sit in the front row. I don’t know if they know what’s going on, but who cares? I talk to each and every one of them, and I know they smile at me. Ain’t no amount of money in the world can pay me for that.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): That is priceless.
Jack Hanna: For me it is. You don’t learn that until you’re older, and some people never learn it. But it’s just what life’s all about. That’s all.
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