By Erin Auerbach
Jack Hanna will be the first to tell you that his extraordinary career working with animals has exceeded his “wildest” expectations. His crammed schedule includes documenting his travels around the world to visit exotic animals for his nationally syndicated reality show, Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild, serving as director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, advocating for animal conservation, and maintaining his ubiquitous media presence on national news and talk shows while making appearances and educational presentations throughout the country. Tails spoke with Hanna about his extraordinary career and his love of animals:
You started working for a vet when you were a young boy. Were you thinking of becoming one? How did you end up as a zoologist?
I’m not a zoologist. I’m an ambassador to the animal world because I was raised on a farm. Briefly, I thought of being a vet, but I wasn’t as good in school and worked hard to finish college in three and a half years. Since I was 16 years old, I wanted to be a zookeeper and eventually a zoo director. But I never dreamed I would travel the world and do what I do.
What kinds of pets did you sell in the pet shop you owned in the late ’60s/early ’70s? How do you feel about pet shops today? Do you believe they should be allowed to sell cats and dogs?
We had dogs and cats, but we never got animals from puppy mills. A lot of pet shops today in general do a great job in terms of advocating that people spay and neuter their animals. If you have love and passion for animals, you can have a pet shop, and you’ll do a good job. But if you’re in it for the money, it’s not a good thing.
We also had exotic animals in our pet shop, but I don’t promote exotic pet [guardianship]. You should work in a zoo first and learn about the animals and get proper permits and make sure you can properly take care of the animals. Most people who [have] exotic pets shouldn’t; living creatures take a lot of hard work.
During your tenure as acting executive director of the Columbus Zoo (from 1978 to 1992), what were the most successful programs you implemented to increase attendance?
I started a Christmas light show and an Earth Day event. By 1992, attendance was at a record high—almost 1.5 million visitors. Zoos are not just a place for animals; they’re a place for families to have fun and get an education. Most zoos are great places as long as they’re accredited.
What is the biggest challenge of running a zoo?
Right now, it’s making sure you get the right funding. And when you get the funding, you should share it to help support animals in the wild. Build the right kind of habitats and get support for animals in the wild. [Columbus Zoo is] one of five places in the world to rehabilitate manatees, and we give several hundred thousands of dollars each year to support manatees in the wild.
Because you travel so much and make appearance with animals on so many talk shows, have you ever had any trouble getting animals through airport security?
I never travel by planes with animals. They are transported carefully in proper cars, and never more than 1,000 miles. I have seven different personnel working in various parts of the country who can bring animals from the local zoo for any educational and media appearances I make. The proper care of the animals comes first in anything we do.
Are there any animals whom you are afraid of?
I’m never afraid of animals. It’s always a matter of respect. No matter if [the animal is] a dog or a wild animal. I’ve been hurt, yes, but that’s been my fault. If you show respect to animals in their homes and in the wild, there shouldn’t be a problem.
What do you think humans can learn from other animals?
People could learn from animals how to treat each other. In the animal world, you don’t see a lot of waste or abuse. You don’t see waste of habitat. You see a lot of love with animals. Wolves, foxes, and elephants are incredibly social.
You told Tails how your dogs, Tasha and Brass, inspire you (February “Love and Inspiration” issue). How do zoo animals inspire you?
Their adaptation. They want to show the visitor what they look like, what they smell like, and what they mean to the planet.