Jack Hanna still believes in zoos, and he'll tell you all about it at The Mahaffey

The wildlife advocate calls himself "a strong supporter" of Sea World.

click to enlarge Jack Hanna still believes in zoos, and he'll tell you all about it at The Mahaffey
courtesy of Jack Hanna

"Jungle" Jack Hanna loves animals and wants you to love them, too.

He hopes that if you see his countless TV appearances — or come to one of live shows, like Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild Live Jan. 22 at the Mahaffey Theater — it'll get you as excited about animals as he is, which will in turn increase your commitment to conservation, to preserving and protecting our world's critters (plus, the show will be really fun, entertaining, and cute).

How Hanna gets there isn't totally uncontroversial. In a world where outfits like Sea World and the Ringling Brothers Circus are finding the public to be increasingly unhappy with their practices, Hanna — who has been in this business for more than five decades, as an entertainer, advocate, and longtime director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium — defends zoos, and even Sea World, as being good for animals.

Creative Loafing recently caught up with Hanna on the phone to find out more — and, yes, it's a lot of serious stuff. Don't worry, we also talked about Bigfoot.

Creative Loafing: How has the field changed since you first got started?

Jack Hanna: The zoo world has changed beyond comprehension. I cleaned cages for a veterinarian when I was 11 years old to 16 years old. When I was like 15 years old he took me to a little old zoo in Knoxville, which was one of my first times I saw a zoo. Back then zoological parks back, in the 1940s, ‘50s, ‘60s, we were learning, let’s put it that way. Zoos were where people went to  to kind of look at the animals, maybe throw some candy at them, that kind of stuff.

And today that’s not all what zoos are about. The number one purpose of a zoological park today would be education and conservation, those two words. You can’t be educated about conservation, unless you are educated. Do you follow me?

We have about 221 zoos in our country. We’ve got some great parks where you all live, and these places are really a haven, an incredible place for animals. Most people in the world don’t have what these animals have in zoological parks. They have veterinary care, they have breeding situations, they have the finest food in the world.

Things will get better, better, and better. I have to have this kind of attitude. I just have to pray like I do and say the animal world will get better, better, and better.

CL: You seem to feel like the situation for wildlife is not as dire as it once was, that things are getting better — but that we need to work on sort of the human side now.

JH: I’ve been very lucky to see animals in this wild situation they talk about. I’ve been very lucky to see them in all of our national parks basically, as well as in Africa, South America, South Pole, North Pole, wherever you want to go.

Out there is beautiful, no doubt about it. But when you see some of the things I’ve seen, it’s also the word unforgiving. Unless you understand it, it can be an unforgiving place as well because of one word, and I don’t mind using it, it’s overpopulation.

If you think about the problems we have on earth, what are they? Global warming, not enough wood to build with, sometimes our air isn’t good, sometimes our water isn’t good. So why is all that? Is it because of animals? I don’t think so, do you?

The good Lord gave us this earth to take care of and obviously we can do that when we all want to, but if the people keep growing, where are the animals going to go? It’s all loss of habitat.

CL: You've come under criticism from groups like PETA and groups that basically don’t think that any animals should be in captivity. Do you feel like that’s something that you need to fight or address?

JH: I have a saying called "touch the heart to teach the mind." If you can’t touch someone’s heart to teach the mind, then what chance do these animals have? What would you answer to that one? If you’d never seen, how could you sit here and criticize an animal you don’t know, do you follow me?

For example, Sea World. In 1972 or 1973 when they first opened, I took my little girls to Sea World because I’d never seen a killer whale. I’m from Tennessee, I’d never seen a whale, any kind of whale.

And so I went to see those whales. We started crying because we had never seen a whale and how beautiful the whales were. So that’s why I’m a strong supporter of Sea World and their whales and their dolphins — because they represent the ocean world, basically.

And the ocean world is where a lot of life started. It’s pretty important that we know about the ocean world, I think you’d agree with that. And I can tell you right now, having gone to Sea World, none of those animals, no matter what you read about, none of those animals I ever knew ever suffered whatsoever.

It’s no longer captivity because these animals are not born in the wild, most of them. We don’t go grabbing a big polar bear up in the North Pole and throw him in a zoo. See, that’s what you’re made to think.

It’s not a matter of fighting PETA or fighting anybody else. If we all sit here and fight each other, who are trying to fight the fight, what are we doing? I’m sure we’ll all disagree forever, but we have to come together here somewhere down the line and start doing some things together, that’s all.

My approach to educating people to the animal world is to try and get their attention, to get them loving something. I just said, touch the heart to see [sic] the mind. If we can’t love these things we can’t save them, it’s that simple. It’s not rocket science.

Oh, by the way, when I come to your theater there, you’ll see, we have a young cheetah. She was born with pneumonia, everything in the world you can imagine. You’ll see that. You’ll see penguins, you’re going to see maybe the echidna which is one of only two egg laying mammals in the world. There’s only about a dozen of them in the country.

We’ll have those, we’ll have some of our favorite clips from a lot of my shoots throughout the world over the years. And then you’ll have one that I don’t like watching but people love it, that’s the blooper tape where animal was eating in my hair, when ostrich kicked me in my private parts. I mean, it’s really funny for people to watch but not for me.

CL: Is there an animal you’ve always wanted to work with or you’d love to work with, who you haven’t gotten to meet in person yet?

JH: Yeah, Bigfoot. It’s either Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster, I just can’t find them over at my show.

This interview edited for length and clarity.