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Animal celeb Jack Hanna celebrates 40 years at Columbus Zoo

Monday, September 10, 2018

The Columbus Dispatch

COLUMBUS

As he chatted with the desk clerk working the hotel graveyard shift, the man in the khaki clothes and leather Outback hat wonders aloud if the cheetah sleeping in room 116 just might escape.

The young clerk’s eyes widen as Jack Hanna tells him that cheetahs can run more than 70 mph, and they like to go for the throat.

Just after sunrise when Hanna, still wiping the crust out of his brown eyes, returns to the lobby, the hotel worker is waiting for him. The only person who hasn’t recognized Hanna in two days says he was terrified half the night until his supervisor assured him that he had fallen prey to one of Hanna’s playful jokes.

(There really is a cheetah sleeping in Room 116, but he’s secure.)

“You got me good, Mr. Hanna,” says the clerk as one of the world’s most famous animal ambassadors put his arm around him for a selfie.

Hanna turns his attention to the growing crowd of fans who want an autograph.

One of the three women who work for Hanna and save him from himself multiple times a day, hands him a cellphone.

“You have to take this call,” she says.

Hanna ignores the request and continues signing autographs for the adoring fans who have transformed the hotel’s continental breakfast room into a red-carpet event. John “Jack” Hanna was born and raised on a farm in Knoxville, Tenn., and now travels 220 days a year. He has lost track of where he is and what’s ahead for the day.

“Jack, it’s Saturday. You are in Scranton, Pa., and you have a show to do this afternoon,” she says, holding the phone out. “This is your producer, you have to talk to him.”

The producer of Hanna’s popular “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild” television show tells him he has won another Emmy award. It’s Hanna’s fifth.

“Hot dog!” Hanna yells.

“And congratulations,” he tells the producer.

He never says another word about the news that would have had most pouring champagne.

“Now what are we doing again today?” Hanna asks, laughing, knowing the eye roll and scolding are coming.

Hanna is most known for his love of animals, but it’s his genuine ability to connect with people from any culture that might be his true legacy.

Forty years ago, Hanna took over a small, dilapidated zoo in Columbus that many in the city didn’t even know existed. He painted bathrooms, shoveled animal waste, rebuilt the morale of his workers and established a network of generous donors. He eventually transformed the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium – which drew 2.3 million visitors last year – into one of the world’s best.

Now 71, Hanna is celebrating his 40th anniversary at the zoo as one of the most recognizable animal ambassadors and leaders in wildlife conservation.

“Jack really put Columbus, Ohio, on the map,” said Tom Stalf, president and CEO of the Columbus Zoo. “There are many animals we deal with every day that are highly endangered. If it wasn’t for Jack’s commitment to tell their story, to get people to connect with those animals, I promise you, the animals we have around this globe wouldn’t be as healthy as they are today.”