America's Zookeeper

Jack Hanna goes 'Into the Wild' to bring nature's bounty to the UA campus

He's been up close and personal with the wildest critters on Earth, and you've seen it all unfold through your TV set for the better part of three decades. Now you can catch him in person. Jack Hanna, everyone's favorite poster boy for wildlife conservation, brings his Tennessee charm to UA's Centennial Hall on Sunday, Jan. 26, for a family-friendly show. Fresh from an African safari on which he filmed an eight-part miniseries for his Emmy-winning, syndicated series Into the Wild, Hanna sat down to talk with the Tucson Weekly via phone recently about his current projects, his views on ecological issues and his upcoming UA appearance. And, yes, there will be live animals in the show. Bunches of 'em.

TW: You have become, more or less, the public face for wildlife—how did that happen?

JH: I just wanted to be a zookeeper all my life, never even sought TV. It's just (that I was) in the right place at the right time.

TW: What are you working on now?

JH: I just got back from Gabon, a small country on the West African Coast. We were filming lowland gorillas in the wild, the mandrill in the wild, the forest elephant, sea turtles laying their eggs. It's an incredibly diversified rainforest country. It's an oil-rich country but the president wants to (shift) to ecotourism, so we went over there and did eight shows about what Gabon does with the animal world. That'll start airing in March. Now, I'm here at the Columbus Zoo, my home base in Ohio, getting all my speeches done. Then I go to New York next week and I do Piers Morgan and Good Morning America—this is our 30th anniversary (on GMA). We just celebrated 28 years on David Letterman.

TW: Tell us what people can expect when you come to Tucson.

JH: About an hour before the show I go out and sign autographs. (The show starts with) a seven-minute gorilla video, then I bring out three to four live animals ... then another video, three to four more animals, then another clip. These are some of my favorites from 500 to 600 shows over the last 25 years. Then I end it with bloopers. It's a fun show ... but there will be some serious moments.

TW: What do you see as the most pressing environmental issue nationally and globally, and what can we do about it on an individual basis?

JH: Globally and nationally, it's very simple—overpopulation. I have friends that have large families. I have no problem with it, but the point is, the world is only so big. We do have global warming; we do have, obviously, trash. In Gabon, trash washes up on the beaches. And some of it's not even from Gabon. It's washed up from other countries. In Antarctica, you'll see plastic on the beaches, and nobody lives down there. What do you think causes global warming. It's very simple—the world is only so big.

When I was a little boy in Tennessee the world was so big to me it was endless. But our planet is very small. It can only sustain so much life and we're testing that right now. I think with recycling, with some of the work we're doing with energy, it's helping. But will we ever catch up? The answer is simply "No" because the population of the world keeps growing. Ideas like carpooling bicycling, water conservation ... that's all fine. If we just stay where we are we might catch up, but if you're going to continue to increase the population, it ain't gonna happen.

Loss of habitat for animals, why is that? It's just that man has to go somewhere to live. So man will win out. We all have to understand that, whether it's me, an American here in Columbus, Ohio, or whether it's a young boy in Rwanda. By the way, do you realize that the 8-year-old American consumes 100 times more than the 8-year-old in Rwanda?

TW: So you're saying the only real "fix" for the environment is a global shift in perspective?

JH: If we all get together, it'll get worked out. If we don't, there's going to be a problem.

TW: There has been some talk by Arizona's governor of privatizing state parks due to budget constraints. What are your thoughts on farming out parks and nature reserves to the private sector?

JH: When you talk about privatizing ... state parks, yes. Right now I'm trying to get (my nonprofit) to take over a state park in Ohio because our governor, like your governor, is trying to take certain state operations and put them in the private sector because they don't have the money to operate these things. If the right people are operating them, I don't have a problem at all. We don't wanna lose them, do we?

TW: What about on the national level?

JH: We should see how the state parks do first. If it gets to the national level, I really don't have a problem with that either if you get the right people doing it. I'd rather keep them national parks (run by the government). But if it can't be done, I sure wouldn't want to close 'em or open 'em to real estate development, I can tell you that.

TW: Is it possible to reach that happy balance between commerce and environmentalism in light of the population boom?

JH: There's no doubt in my mind that as the world develops, there are going to be some animals that are going to lose their lives. Take wind turbines—wind energy is important. Montana has them, you know, and I think out in the Plains there's no problem. But they are approaching the Glacier National Park area. Once you start getting real close to wildlife habitat, it's going to affect birds and things, but it's a give-and-take situation. You've just gotta be careful.

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