As a boy growing up in the Tennessee Valley, Jack Hanna, aka “Jungle Jack,” never imagined he would explore the seven continents, much less dive beneath the seven seas.
All he knew growing up on a farm outside of Knoxville was that he loved animals, and if he could make any wish come true it would be to meet his hero, Marlin Perkins, host of the 1963-1985 TV series “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom”.
While television and celebrityhood were never part of his gameplan, over the past 25 years Hanna has been seen on many morning and late-night TV talk shows educating viewers about the creatures of the wild. Nowadays he hosts two syndicated TV shows airing across the U.S. including “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild,” which nabbed Daytime Emmy Awards in 2008, 2012 and 2013.
He plays down the fame, claiming not to be a celebrity or star and has said before that he is simply “a zoo person that does an animal show.”
The director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium will be coming out of the wild life and into Music City when he appears at Schermerhorn Symphony Center at 2 p.m., Sunday, Sept. 29, to present “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild Live.”
He says fans will see “live animals like penguins, a kangaroo, a sloth and a mix of other animals as well as videos from my shows and some that have not been on TV from parts of Africa and South America. Also, I tell stories about my life.”
(Note: He would be bringing a cheetah but Tennessee state laws forbid it.)
His professional career in caring for critters started at the age of 11 when he went to work for the family veterinarian cleaning cages and sweeping floors. When the vet became the animal doctor for the Knoxville Zoo, Hanna followed right along.
“I went back home and told my parents, ‘I’m gonna be a zookeeper one day.’ I always kept telling people in high school that I was gonna be a zookeeper, and they made fun of me. Even some of the teachers asked, ‘Why are you coming to school if all you’re gonna do is clean up after animals?’ Zoos back then are not like they are today,” said Hanna, 72.
After he graduated from high school, the animal enthusiast went to Muskingum College in Ohio and played football, following in the steps of his father, Ross, who played football at Vanderbilt University and served as captain of the Vandy basketball team during the 1939-1940 season.
Jack met Suzi, his wife to be, in college while earning a degree in business and political science. They tied the knot in 1968 and moved to Knoxville and opened a pet shop, Pet Kingdom, and also helped get the Knoxville Zoo off the ground.
“At that time, I told Sue, ‘Maybe one day we can go to Africa.’ Sure enough, we went and have been there many times. I’ve lived every dream any human being could, and everything started at the Knoxville Zoo and animal clinic and our little farm,” he said.
Shortly after returning to his hometown, Hanna was offered a job to direct the Central Florida Zoo in Sanford, Fla. Then in 1978, he spotted an ad for a zoo director, which led to his 41-year association with the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium where he was director until 1992. He continues to claim central Ohio as his home, and he and Sue have a small house inside the Columbus Zoo.
Fame through TV
As for his entry into television, he said it began “as a fluke.”
He hosted a local show for the Columbus CBS-TV affiliate station called “Hanna’s Ark.” Then in 1983, “Good Morning America” invited him to be a guest after twin gorillas were born in the Columbus Zoo. In 1985, he made his debut on “Late Night With David Letterman,” and the two hit it off, leading him to make several appearances a year.
For a man who has handled dozens of dangerous critters over half a century, Hanna has experienced a few scary moments, such as when he was nearly run down by a charging bull elephant, and he can tell you what it feels like to be bitten by a giant anaconda.
However, his worst hands-on moment came in New York after he showed Letterman a gigantic beaver captured in Mississippi.
“I did the show and picked up the beaver and no problem. As I walked off the show, he bit right through my thumb and finger of my left hand,” said Hanna, who bears the scar to prove it.
Hanna confesses he loves all creatures and has a special fondness for elephants, big cats and, in more recent years, mountain gorillas.
“The Columbus Zoo has a lowland gorilla born in a zoo. Rwanda has mountain gorillas. There are no mountain gorillas in any zoo in the world. That’s the way we want to keep them. Sue and I have a cabin in that part of the world, not just for ourselves. We love going up there and seeing the mountain gorillas versus the lowland gorillas,” he said.
“I have given a lot of my life to helping the mountain gorillas and supporting them. I think they went down to 21 animals and now there are over 100 mountain gorillas.”
Closer to home, Hanna was asked how he would rate the Nashville Zoo.
“I must tell you that is an incredible zoo,” he responded. “I had not seen it in years. I went back to do a benefit a few years ago. Those folks in Nashville should be very happy. I ‘ve been in zoos throughout the country, and I think it’s absolutely one of the top five in the U.S.A.—not just the animals, but the landscaping is one of the best in the U.S. Some of their enclosures I have never seen anywhere else in this country. I couldn’t believe how beautiful it was.
“Knoxville has a great zoo now,” he added. “It’s not the same zoo I went to as a boy where you looked at animals behind bars. Zoos are educational in a fun way. Everybody can’t go to Africa or Asia. That’s why we have zoological parks. That is why we have Glacier National and the Great Smoky Mountains, to teach young kids.”
As for Hanna’s dream of meeting Marlin Perkins, he finally met the zoologist-explorer one day in a parking lot in Columbus, Ohio. Not exactly a “wild kingdom” moment but certainly one that he treasures to this day.