“Jungle Jack Hanna’s coming on the show,” David Letterman says in a 2015 episode of “The Late Show.” “How many times do you think he’s been on?” he asks sidekick Paul Shaffer.
“60 times?” Shaffer guesses.
“Low,” Letterman replies.
“80?” Shaffer counters.
As of 2015, Hanna had been on Letterman over 100 times in 33 years.
“He’s been on more than I have,” Letterman joked.
Recognized as America’s favorite zookeeper, Jack Hanna has been making television appearances since he started with the Columbus Zoo in the 1980s. He’s gone on to host the Emmy Award-winning television shows “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild” and “Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown.” He’s also director emeritus of the famed Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and The Wilds. But, beyond being an animal lover, Hanna is hoping to create animal advocates through his work with rare and endangered animals.
“I believe the most effective way to create animal advocates is touching the heart to teach the mind,” Hanna said by email recently.
From the jungles of Rwanda to the savannas of Australia, he brings animals from the far corners of the world to audiences in his stage show. “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild Live!” will make a stop at Rutland’s Paramount Theatre at 1 and 4 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 12.
In the same Letterman appearance, four wranglers carry out baby leopards that look like house cats, but wilder around the eyes. Next they bring out a sizable bird that does not look amused, and perch it on Dave’s mic. “It’s a canary,” Letterman deadpans, before Hanna teaches Letterman to make a noise the bird then answers to.
Brushing a hippo’s teeth, eating with wombats, albino alligators, scorpions and baby tigers, you never know what Hanna will produce from the array of animals he brings. It could be a cheetah, a kangaroo or a penguin. How did he get into such a crazy career?
“I got my first job when I was 11 working for our family veterinarian in Knoxville, Tennessee,” he says on his website. “In 1978 I answered an ad for a director of the Columbus Zoo. When I first started, attendance was low and the animal habitats were outdated. My top priority was to increase attendance by offering educational and entertaining events. As a result of these programs, more and more people started visiting the zoo.”
That led to TV appearances, which combined education with entertainment, as Hanna introduced the world to its rarest, most endearing animals.
“My family and I explore the corners of the globe and discover amazing animals and cultures. (The) animals that I bring on television are ambassadors to their cousins in the wilds, and are cared for by professionals,” he said.
But working with animals is unpredictable. When asked if he’s ever surprised by them, he answered, “Always!”
“We don’t force the animals to do anything they don’t want to. Our staff does positive reinforcement training with our animals, and we’ll often share those behaviors with audiences onstage — and, well, sometimes they don’t cooperate!” he said.
“When we’re filming around the world for ‘Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild,’ things never go quite as planned,” Hanna said. “Whether the animals aren’t where we are expecting them to be, or our equipment unexpectedly breaks — I suppose they call it reality TV for a reason! We always observe at a safe distance — respecting the animal and its space is so important. Each animal has its own distinctive personality and quirks.”
And, though his TV shows have won many awards, Hanna seems equally at home on stage during live performances, where he hopes to make an impact inspiring animal supporters.
“I really love connecting with the audience,” he said. “To watch their faces as they see a penguin for the first time or their surprise when they witness an unexpected animal behavior. I feel honored to have the opportunity to present animals that touch the hearts of so many — and I love hearing from people, who after watching my show, are inspired to go make a difference!”