85th GM Presentation Hanna

The 85th General Meeting Featured Presentation

Jungle Jack Hanna

The following presentation was delivered at the 85th General Meeting Monday morning session, May 9. It has been edited for content and phrasing.


Jack Hanna is one of the most visible and respected international ambassadors. His hands-on approach and experience with wildlife has won him widespread acclaim as an author, television personality, conservationist, and director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Graduated from Muskingham College in Ohio, Mr. Hanna's first job was at the Central Florida Zoo. In 1978, he accepted the position of director of the Columbus Zoo in Ohio. Mr. Hanna is credited with turning the Columbus Zoo into the state-of-the-art facility it is today. Combining his keen understanding of public relations with his love for animals, Mr. Hanna took his passion to the airwaves through his successful television programs, including Jack Hanna's Into the Wild and Jack Hanna's Wild Countdown. He is the recipient of two Daytime Emmys for an outstanding children's series and an outstanding travel program. Recognized around the world as America's favorite zookeeper, Mr. Hanna made countless appearances on television shows, including Good Morning America, Larry King Live, David Letterman, Fox News, CNN, Piers Morgan Tonight, and The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He is the author of 11 books and is an active supporter of numerous animal organizations.

Mr. Hanna:

I came to share with you today some serious issues and some fun stories from my career. Many organizations say their number one priority is safety, but oftentimes it really isn’t. You can imagine what we deal with at the Columbus Zoo, the largest zoo in North America, now with 10,000 animals.

But first, people ask how I got started in my career. I was raised on a farm in Tennessee and we had a small vet clinic nearby. At the age of 11, I cleaned cages at the vet’s in the summers. And when I was 16, I went to a little zoo in Knoxville, and I said I'm going to be a zookeeper. People would make fun of me, but I just lived my dream and I wasn't going to bend on it.

I went to college and had a difficult time in school, but I worked very hard. I met my wife, Sue, in college. My senior year, with only two weeks left to graduate, I only had a 2.1 grade point average. You couldn't get anywhere today with that. The president of the college called me in and he said, “Jack, why would you do this? Zoos smell, they stink, people throw grapes at animals. It's just nothing.” And he was right. That's the way zoos were back then. Things are very different today.

Last year, 176 million people went to our zoos. There are 221 zoos in our country. Most of you have zoos close to where you live. You might have an aquarium as well. The largest recreation in America today is the visitation of zoological parks. It's amazing what's happened from the older days in the 1950s and '60s. Many zoos should have been shut down back then. Not today. Ninety-eight percent of our animals come from other zoos. They don't come from the wild.

After school I went to Florida to help at the Central Florida Zoo, and then I went back to our home and worked at the zoo in Knoxville. I was only 29 years old. At that point, our lives changed. Our daughter Julie, who is now 41 years old, had a terrible form of cancer, leukemia, brain tumors, everything you can image all at once. We took her to St. Jude’s in Memphis in 1977. She was two at that time, and out of all the 12 kids on her floor, only two survived, my daughter and another little boy. But today we still have her because of Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus. That's how I got to Columbus. I went there because of the hospital.

When we were in Columbus the zoo was looking for a director because no one else would take the job. That was the beginning of my journey with the Columbus Zoo. You talk about a person being blessed in life. I can't believe what my life has been like.

Jack’s Worst Bite

Throughout my career, people have asked me if I’ve ever been bitten, and the answer is yes. Ninety-five percent of accidents in zoological parks involving animals are the human’s fault, not the animal's fault. Some people want to reverse that, but it's not true. I've been doing this for 40 years in the zoo world and 35 years of filming all over the world, so I have seen both sides of the fence when accidents happen.

The worst bite I had was probably my fault. I was doing the Letterman Show back in 1988. I started making appearances in 1985, and we did 100 shows. Of course, David Letterman retired last year. So I was going to be on the show and a guy, Leslie, calls me from Louisiana, and said, “Jack, you won't believe this. I have the biggest beaver in the world, the biggest one. It weighs 52 pounds.” I said, “Leslie, that's stupid, I'm in Tennessee, there are no beavers that big at all.” Sure enough, he got a picture of it for me. I said, “Okay, I’m going to get him on the Letterman Show, but you have to fly up here with it.”

Leslie calls me at the last minute, and says, “I can't fly, I'm afraid of planes.” I said, “Leslie, what you need to do is take three or four Ambien, then get on the plane and fall asleep and come here with your beaver, for God's sakes. I've already told David Letterman I'm bringing the thing, and they are all excited. They’ve even built a little pool for him.” So sure enough, Leslie got on the plane with the beaver.

He arrived and I went to the hotel room and practiced with the beaver but I couldn’t control him. When we got to the show, the beaver was on first. They had a nice little swimming hole made out of plexiglass and the beaver was swimming around. Usually when a beaver is in water like that, they hit their tails and usually defecate, and stuff flies everywhere. I was hoping that would happen. Sure enough, the beaver goes in the water, he does his thing, and stuff is flying everywhere. Letterman was having a lot of fun with it. Then, between segments, I picked up the beaver and it swung around for some reason – I think maybe someone in the band played a loud note – and his tooth went right into my hand.

I started getting sick to my stomach but I wanted to finish up with the last segment. I put on a rubber glove and it held in the blood. I walked back out there and someone held up a cue card saying I’d been severely bitten. Well, Letterman does not like surprises. In the show you don't surprise him; he doesn't know what to do. He said, “Jack, just get your animals and get them back to that terrible zoo in Columbus.”  You know how he always treated me. I said fine. Then he said, “My God, what happened?” At that point, blood started dripping out from the top of the glove all over his desk.

He said, “Call an ambulance.” I said, “No, Dave. I'm at Rockefeller Center right where that Christmas tree is and it's December 16th. You can't get a cab out there. And I don't want some ambulance pulling up and taking Jack Hanna with a beaver bite to the hospital at Christmas.” I ended up at Roosevelt Hospital in New York City. I still have no feeling in this thumb, never will the rest of my life. The next time I went back to the show, David Letterman on national TV – you won't believe this – he looks at me and says, “Jack, I hope you learned a lesson last time.” I said, “What's that, Dave?” And he said, “Don't ever mess with another man's beaver.” Right on national TV. I said, “I'm not doing this show anymore, I'm not. If my wife hears this, I'm out of work.”

Gorilla Escape

Back in the day, I'm sorry to say, the zoo’s safety measures were not what they could have been. We had the right tranquilizers and rifles, that kind of thing, but no one knew where anything was because the zoo was going down the tubes. The Columbus Zoo is noted for our gorillas. Oscar is a male silverback gorilla at our zoo. Oscar might weigh four to five hundred pounds now. During my third year at the Columbus Zoo, we had a Code One. We’d never had a Code One in the zoo. The call came over the radio and I thought they were practicing a drill. But it wasn’t a drill. We immediately shut down the zoo. Oscar had gotten loose behind the scenes. We had an old building called the giraffe house and we were putting some type of painted ceiling on it with a backhoe.

A guy was up in the bucket operating it, and then Oscar appeared in the area with him. What happened was the keeper wasn't paying attention, and when they went out for lunch, the gorilla opened the door. Gorillas are smart. They watch everything every day. Oscar watched every day how they turned spigots on, opened refrigerators, do all this stuff.

Oscar, when they were looking at him from above, was having a blast. He took the refrigerator door, opened it, took it right off the hinges, and threw it on the floor like it was a marshmallow. Then he went to the sink and pulled out the spigots, and water went everywhere. The biggest problem was when he went to the door where the guy goes out. But by that time, I had the bucket of the backhoe pushed up against the door and Oscar couldn’t get out. All of a sudden, the metal doorknob was sucked out, like it was just nothing, and then Oscar started throwing it all around. By that time, we did get the vet there to tranquilize him. Oscar is still alive today, if you want to go to our zoo and see him, but that's the kind of stuff that happens in our business.

Safety: Standing Between You and Disaster

Your theme this week has to do with safety versus disaster. In our industry we know about this. One tragic example is what happened when I lost my good friend Steve Irwin. He would tell you that the accident was his fault. They were in the Australian Great Barrier Reef exactly where I have filmed, and the stingrays there are huge. Steve was in lower waters and they were filming for fun at that time. And what happened was that his shadow went across the stingray. If you go into your house alone at night and you see a shadow behind the door, what are you going to do? You’re going to jump, aren't you? That stingray jumped when Steve’s shadow went over it.

Dawn Brancheau lost her life with the killer whale at SeaWorld.  SeaWorld is a tremendous place even to this day, no matter what you see on TV. I had to do her funeral. And the sad thing is she loved that whale. She loved all animals. But the whale she had been with for 15 years thought her ponytail was a play toy.

Just a few weeks ago you heard about keeper Stacey Konwiser and the tiger in Palm Beach Zoo. I was in the area when it happened and they called me. This woman was a beautiful person, but she was inside the enclosure by herself. They are still investigating. I wanted to know if Stacey was gone when the second keeper arrived, and I was told she was gone. A tiger is much different than a lion. It was over in a quick second, because they always grab the neck. Even when they breed, the females will die half the time in the wild and in zoos. So with that said, a mistake was made, and it wasn't that cat's fault by any means.

We don’t have deaths all over zoos. If you take a 30-year study, which I'm trying to put together now, you'd have billions of visitors, millions of employees over 30 years, and who knows how many animals. We have 10,000 animals at the Columbus zoo alone, and that doesn't include the fish. So you can see the numbers we are talking about. I guarantee you safety at zoos would be at the top of any organization. It seems that negativity drives everything in our country now. Yes, we have animal issues, but on the news every night, it seems like the whole world is going to pot. Well, the animal world is not going to pot, let me put it that way. It’s not at all, because we have control over many things we do in the zoological world to keep it safe. It just takes a tragedy sometimes to bring better safety.

In our park, human life comes first. It's very simple. Our job is to take care of our visitors, our staff, and our animals. If we interview someone and ask what they would do if a tiger got out and was approaching a family, but wasn’t really mean, and he was slowly walking toward you, what would you do? If the candidate takes more than three seconds to answer that question, he's not hired, because you know what has to happen: the animal has to go. When you have 30,000 people visiting your zoo on a Saturday – talk about prioritizing safety – and an animal gets out, we have the proper equipment to deal with it. A zoo is one of the safest places in the world to visit.

Safety rules my life. When I have filmed in the wild, have I had incidents? Yes, I have. But we have a very strict show, 30-something years of experience. I think we’ve been successful because we have a comfort zone with the film crew and the animals. Reality TV shows are trash, where they show animals biting people and rattlesnakes biting. That doesn't show kids anything. You respect animals in the wild. You are in its home, not your home. An animal might be a few feet away and some producers say, “get closer, get closer.” No, that is the animal's home, and the minute you get closer, you are pushing that animal to do something dangerous. We film with the safety and respect of the animals in mind. You have to respect them. It reduces the chance for something to happen. But even then you can't guarantee it 100%. 

Live Animal Presentation

Eurasian eagle-owl: The beautiful Eurasian eagle-owl is the largest owl in the world. He can almost turn his head all the way around. Why does he do that? Because his eyeballs are so big, they cannot turn in their sockets. His neck can almost go all the way around, too. It's amazing. The echolocation of an owl is one of the greatest of any animal in the world, except maybe the elephant and fennec fox from the Sahara Desert. This owl can hear things you would not even believe. In the dark, his eyesight is 10 times greater than yours. The owl’s talons have about 500 pounds of pressure per square inch. The amount of pressure in an American bald eagle’s talons is 1,000 pounds of pressure per square inch. If a wild bald eagle came down and put his talons on my arm, it would go through my skin, through my muscle, and break my bone in one split second.

Cotton-top tamarin and owl monkey: The cotton-top tamarin was an endangered species in Peru and was used for the pet trade. When these animals have little babies, they weigh about an ounce at birth. When they have their babies, they usually give birth to twins, and it's comparable to a 125-pound woman giving birth to two, nine-pound babies. They mainly eat fruit and nuts. When you see a family of 30 to 50 of these in the wild, you can sit and watch them all day long. The owl monkey got its name because of its eyes. This animal species is protected.

Hyacinth macaw: The smuggling of birds like this out of South America is a large smuggling trade. When a baby bird is taken from the jungle, it is sold for maybe $10. Then it is taken to the village and sold for $30. Then it goes to the port, the sea, and it sells for about $200. Then it goes to California or New Orleans or places where animals are brought in and the bird is sold for maybe $300 to $400 dollars. And the final cost for a bird like this is $3,000 to $4,000 dollars. So you see how they can make a lot of money off these birds. However, in the last five years, our country has done a tremendous job in addressing this. You would not believe what some people do to smuggle them in. They put tape around the baby bird’s wings, shove them into PVC pipes, and make sure they have air at each end. When the birds arrive in the US, at least a 1/3 to ½ of the babies are gone. This is not a bird you want as a pet. The bird’s beak can rip your finger off. We used to raise these birds and two got loose in our beautiful log cabin in Tennessee. We had no logs left. They took it apart in less than twelve hours. The macaw parrot is a psittacine bird and has magnificent color. When they fly in flocks of hundreds, the blue in the sky is amazing.

The cockatoo: The cockatoo is from Australia, and these birds seem to pick up languages. In Australia you will see these by the hundreds, sometimes thousands, flying in fields. This is a white umbrella cockatoo. They are spectacular birds. I wanted you to see these two birds because of the smuggling issue, but the problem is much better than it was 10 years ago. Thank you so much for bringing them from SeaWorld. I appreciate it.

Dromedary camel: A camels is built for the desert. Its nose closes up to protect it during a desert sandstorm, and he has two eyelids. These animals can go out into the desert for three to six months. I have seen 30-60 camels all in a row going out into the desert. Why? People live out there. The camel is the oldest beast of burden on the planet. There are more camels now in Australia and Africa than there are in the Middle East. The animal takes people out into the desert; carries all the packs, food, and water. Its hump is fat. If someone is out on a six-month tour and a camel dies, it will be taken for food. Its bones are used for scissors, needles, decoration, or for weapons. Every bit of that camel is used for something when they go across the desert. When camels defecate, people collect it in a bag and dry it out as they travel and it’s used as the fire that cooks the food. Humans drink its milk. The camel's foot is steady on the sand because it's big and widens out.

Jack’s Mountain Gorilla Experience

How many of you have seen gorillas in zoos? Zoo gorillas are lowland gorillas from the Congo. They live in trees mainly and eat fruit and nuts. There are about 200,000 lowland gorillas in the Congo. We filmed them in Gabon two years ago way out in the jungle. It's amazing how hot it is out there. Lowland gorillas are much smaller than mountain gorillas. Mountain gorillas were only discovered in 1905 – an animal weighing 400 to 600 pounds up in the mountains, can you imagine that, only discovered in 1905. There are less than 700 mountain gorillas in the world. No zoo will ever take them because they live in altitudes of 6,000 to 14,000 feet, and they live in real cold weather.

How many of you remember Dian Fossey, and her book and movie, Gorillas in the Mist? She was a friend of mine. My family and I went to see the gorillas in 1982. A 70-mile mountain range is the only place in the world they have ever lived. The total number of mountain gorillas did get down to less than 400 at one time. They were being slaughtered and poached. Today that has stopped and their population is coming back because they have incredible guards around the perimeter of the whole park. I want you to see what it's like going up 12,000 feet and sitting with a family of 45 gorillas in the wild. They are wild, but they are habituated, which means the animals see you as not hurting them. When we were there, one huge silverback went and brushed up against my daughter, Suzanne. You have to stand still when they do that. It's really exciting.  (Video excerpt from Into the Wild.)   

If you ever want to go to Rwanda, it's the safest, most democratic, cleanest country in Africa right now. It's unbelievable. My wife and I have four schools there. The animals literally led us to help the people – the animals brought us there. We have aided many children who lost their legs and arms. All of them are in their 20s now, and the schools have helped them. That's what we dedicate our lives to now.

I have had a lot of fun here today and I’ve learned that what you do in the pressure vessel industry is important. What I do is much different, but safety is everything to you as it is to me. My life is dedicated to the zoological world, and zoos are growing every year. I've been very blessed to be a zookeeper. I know my day is coming, but I also know that the good Lord has let me do my work so that many generations to come can enjoy animals in zoos. God bless you and thank you so much for having me at your conference.