Jack Hanna Braves Tigers and Letterman to Become Tv's Favorite Zookeeper

updated 02/01/1988 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/01/1988 01:00AM

Lots of people like animals, but few people like animals as much as Jack Hanna likes animals. Hanna, director of Ohio's Columbus Zoo, carries four-inch Madagascar cockroaches in his shirt pocket and places them on his face with, and even without, the slightest provocation. One night, prodded by enthusiasm, he arrived unannounced at Columbus Mayor Dana Rinehart's house to show off a baby camel, which had been named after the Mayor's wife, Carol. As a child he surprised his mother by trying to keep bluegills alive in the toilet; more recently he and his wife, Suzi, have raised a baby white tiger, two wallabies, 12 ducks (in the family Jacuzzi bath), two chimps, a spider monkey, a llama and three daughters. Put it this way: "The first song they played at our wedding," says Suzi, "was Born Free."

Hanna's enthusiasm is infectious—and effective. During his 10-year stewardship, the once unexceptional Columbus Zoo has become internationally known for its success at breeding gorillas and for its reptile and cheetah collections, both among the world's largest. "People at the zoo will do anything for him," says Dianna Frisch, head keeper of the great apes. "The city is so behind him, it's unbelievable. Everybody loves him, except the gorillas—they're very laid back, and his energy throws them off. They throw things at him." And despite that camel visitation, Mayor Rinehart says, "This guy has been fantastic for Columbus. He's a preeminent marketer. Everybody loves animals, and he knows it."

Though rejected by gorillas, Hanna, 41, has been embraced by television producers. On Good Morning America, where he's a frequent guest, Hanna comes across as relatively subdued and responsible, a Marlin Perkins for the '80s. But it's on Late Night With David Letterman, where he is also a regular, that Hanna really shines. His habit of displaying as many as five animals at the same time—a lion, a scorpion, a snake, a sheep and a moth, for example—is exciting in the same way that watching two freight trains racing toward each other at 90 mph is exciting: Disaster impends. "He's our perfect guest," says Late Night producer Robert Morton. "When he comes on, the elephant may stomp on the little snake, or the python may eat the chicken. We never know what's going to happen." Hanna is quick to point out that "not one of the animals has ever been injured" (a pack of handlers from the zoo is always just out of camera range, watching closely), although a crow did disappear into the rafters for four hours, a goat proved incontinent on-camera and the camels' humps tore up ceiling panels in a nearby hallway. "The camels didn't care, and Letterman loved it," says Hanna, who has his critics. "There are three or four zoo directors who think that what I do on Letterman is unprofessional. I tell them I'm not on Letterman to talk to zoo people. I'm trying to talk to people who perhaps couldn't care less about animals. Yes, there's cuteness on the show. I have to let Letterman get laughs. All I can hope is that I've made someone aware of how important animals are and why wildlife should be preserved. The animals are never belittled."

Hanna became fascinated by fauna while growing up on his family's farm near Knoxville, Tenn. As a teenager he worked part-time for a veterinarian. After graduating from Muskingum College in New Concord, Ohio, with a B.A. in business and political science, he married fellow student Suzi and returned to Knoxville to open a pet shop and petting zoo. He became director of a small Florida zoo in 1973 and after a stint with a wilderness adventure outfit, moved to the Columbus Zoo in 1978. Along the way, Suzi recalls, there was always a baby llama, lion or duck that needed the tender loving care of the Hanna household, which includes Kathaleen, 18, Suzanne, 15, and Julie, 12. Suzi's favorite boarder was a white tiger cub name Taj. "She was about 3 weeks old," says Suzi, 40. "She ate my diamond engagement ring." After five months at home with the Hannas, Taj moved back to the zoo two years ago. "One of the things I like to do is hose her down with cool water in the summer, which she loves," says Suzi. "Jack thinks she still recognizes me, but I'm not sure."

Other than jogging daily, Jungle Jack, as he's known around the zoo, does little that doesn't involve animals. One of his main concerns these days is deciding what collection of creatures he can use next to startle Letterman. "Last time I did some turkey calls with a live turkey on his desk," Hanna says. "Then I brought in a potbellied pig, a miniature horse and a cheetah"—whose antics made the host more than a tad uncomfortable. Hanna smiles at the memory of a job well done. "Letterman doesn't act," he says. "So when he was afraid, he was sincerely afraid."

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