“Lions and tigers and bears” may be a well-known Wizard of Oz recitation of the frightening creatures that lurk along the yellow-brick road, but to animal expert Jack Hanna, it is just a list of the critters he works with every day. Currently director emeritus at the Columbus Zoo, Hanna spends much of his time crossing the country with furry and feathered friends in tow, speaking at colleges and on TV talk shows in an effort to educate audiences about the world’s wild animals.
Hanna’s love of animals was nurtured from his boyhood growing up on a farm in Tennessee; he was surround by beasties and even helped out the town vet when he was just 11 years old, mostly by cleaning cages. As an adult, Hanna and his wife owned a pet shop, but his dream was to work at a zoo. After a two-year stint as director of a small wildlife park in Florida, his life was changed when he applied to be — and was hired as — director of Ohio’s Columbus Zoo in 1978.
Fame followed several years later. Hanna made his first TV appearance as a guest on Good Morning America in 1983. Two years later, David Letterman invited him and his animals to his show; they’ve been making regular visits with Letterman for nearly 30 years now. In 1993, Hanna became the host of Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures, then Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild (2009-10), and now Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown (2011-present). “When I first started, I never dreamed in a million years I’d be doing this,” said Hanna of his stardom and globe-trotting life.
It’s a rigorous schedule, but Hanna has no plans to slow down. He and his wife, Suzi, who accompanies him on his adventures, recently filmed off the coast of Curaçao, where they swam with dolphins. “We also went in a submarine about 600 feet down — a four-man submarine, one of the newest in the world — and filmed fish and animals,” Hanna said. “And then I’m leaving for Gabon in West Africa [to study lowland gorillas] a few days after visiting Santa Barbara.”
In addition to exploring the world, Hanna brings his experiences to audiences across the nation in his Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild Live tour. “It’s for anybody from 3 years old to 100 years old,” he said. “I make it to where they learn something but have fun at the same time. I have six-minute segments from the over 400 shows I’ve done in the past 30 years. Then I’ll bring out three or four live animals, then I’ll show another video — of a baby bear we found in a cave with a mom or of a lady who raised a rhino by hand in east Africa, one of the only [hand-raised rhinos] in the world.”
The animals rumored to be making an appearance in Santa Barbara include a kangaroo, mother-and-baby lemurs, a Siberian lynx, a porcupine, and an African serval cat (note: this list is subject to change). “The thing I’d like people to take away from our show is the fact that I’m not a doom-and-gloom person,” Hanna explained. “My generation, the baby boomers, did more damage to the planet than any previous generation on earth, but these kids today are doing a tremendous job, and I want them to know that. Most of our shows this year are all sold out. People leave there being happy.”
Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild Live is Sunday, November 3, at 2 p.m., at UCSB’s Campbell Hall. At 1 p.m., there will be balloons, face painting, and craft making for kids. $15 (general); $10 (child). For more information, call 893-3535 or visit artsandlectures.sa.ucsb.edu.