“Jungle Jack” and his animals are regular guests on The Late Show with David Letterman, Good Morning America, Larry King Live, The Ellen DeGeneres Show and The Maury Povich Show. “I don’t care if Dave makes fun of me,” he says about Letterman. “That’s why he has been doing this for 26 years.”
I spoke with Hanna recently about zoos, conservation, and the obvious cause of global warming that he said no one wants to discuss.
When you arrived at the Columbus Zoo in 1978, what did the habitats look like?
It was on the verge of being closed, like a lot of zoos. A lot of the animals were in cages, and it didn’t resemble natural habitats. This is totally a conservation field that has turned around a million percent. Last year, 182 million people went to zoos and aquariums. It’s the largest recreation activity in America—not NASCAR, not football. Today, in some cases the habitats are built better than what they have in the wild. We just opened a polar bear and grizzly bear habitat. The water for the polar bears is 54 degrees, they have salinated water with fish, and it’s a good place for them to dive deep. The grizzlies have a tide pool that goes up and down and a stream stocked with trout.
I’m a Baby Boomer. I was born in 1947. When I was a little boy, we had big ol’ gas-guzzling cars, and paid 30-something cents a gallon. People didn’t know any better. But everyone had water, by the way. In 1968 I told people that water would be a problem, and they thought I was crazy. Today’s generation will do more to save the planet than any other generation.
The biggest problem is one word no one wants to talk about, for religious regions or political reasons: overpopulation. As a person who has traveled the world, every continent, many times, I see that it’s overpopulation. We can come up with green stuff, replant trees, create windmills, but we’ll never solve the problem and we’ll never catch up. It’s many steps ahead of us now. The world keeps overpopulating. You have countries that have 6 million people that can only take care of 3 or 4 million. In Rwanda they’re educating people about birth control. It has 8 million people and is the size of Vermont, which has 750,000. You can’t sustain that kind of life.
Why do we have global warming? We have too many people with too many cars. Who creates the problems? It’s the human beings, not the animals. Is it not obvious or what? I tell people what happens to our resources—water, air, trees-- will eventually happen to animal life and will eventually happen to human life. I’ve seen this in country after country.
Yet you’re optimistic.
I’m optimistic. I’m not Mr. Doom and Gloom—that doesn’t win anything in the world. We know what the problem is; if you don’t, you’ve had your head in a cave. But if you’re a young person watching the TV news every night, it’s like coming out for a football game being 0-12 for the season and the coach saying, “OK, let’s go out and play. We’re gonna lose.” So I’m real positive. I don’t tell kids everything’s going to pot. I want to leave them with some hope and tell them what we can do.
Kids don’t get outside anymore. When folks see the zoo; they’re calling giraffes camels and camels giraffes. You can’t blame them for that. Some kids are afraid to see the chickens in the petting zoo. Teachers ask what can we do, and I say, “How many of you go outside and take them into the woods?” About half raise their hands. You can live in New York City and still get outside and show kids leaves and dirt. That’s where you learn.
How do you teach conservation?
You only teach conservation with one word, and that's love. You can’t conserve something if you don’t love it. That’s why it’s important for people to go to the zoo and see the elephant and then grow up loving elephants and understand what’s going on with elephants, which are the largest land mammal on earth. When people go to the zoo, they learn things—like the giraffe has the same number of vertebrae as a human being. Zoos will play a major role in conserving the earth’s wildlife.