Go wild! Renowned zookeeper Jack Hanna to visit LMC’s Mendel Center

Published 9:35 am Thursday, April 24, 2014

Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, will be bringing a variety of wild animals to the Mendel Center on May 9. (Photo by Rick Prebeg)

Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, will be bringing a variety of wild animals to the Mendel Center on May 9. (Photo by Rick Prebeg)

BENTON HARBOR — “You have to touch the heart to teach the mind.”

That’s the driving philosophy behind the live animal show, “Into the Wild Live,” that world-famous zookeeper Jack Hanna will be bringing to Lake Michigan College’s Mendel Center on May 9.

“You can’t have conservation without education,” Hanna explained. “Unless you love something, you won’t want to save it.”

For that reason, Hannah now spends 220 days on the road each year, presenting live shows like this one, as well as travelling the globe to film his television program, also titled “Into the Wild,” and making guest appearances on a variety of popular television shows including “Late Night with David Letterman” and “Good Morning America.”

“Education is number one,” Hanna said. “I’ve seen it in my travels all over the world. No matter what the problem, education is the key across the board. You have to educate people in a fun way.”

The show promises plenty of fun for audience members, as Hanna plans to bring a variety of animals with him.

“It might include a cheetah — the fastest land animal on earth — a snow leopard, birds, sloths, penguins,” Hanna said. “The show is 1 1/2 hours long, and I’ll show my favorite clips from around the world. I’ll bring out three or four animals, show a clip or tell a story, bring out three or four more animals, show another clip. That’s how the show goes.”

Hanna sees the show as a way to bring the experience of the Columbus Zoo to people who would otherwise not be able to visit it. He said that the event is appropriate for audience members ages 3 to 103.

“Not everybody can go to the Columbus Zoo. That’s why we do the show,” Hanna said.

As the director of the Columbus Zoo, it was Hanna’s boundless energy and infectious enthusiasm that helped him build that attraction into one of the world’s largest and most popular zoos. More than 2.4 million people visited it last year.

In charge of day-to-day operations from 1978 until 1992, Hanna took what he called “an old and dirty zoo” and turned it into a model for zoos across the nation. The first step was simply to clean it up.

“I thought, it might be old, but at least it can be old and clean, not old and dirty.”

After that, Hanna set out to create more natural habitats for the animals, to improve the quality of their lives and to create a fun and educational experience for zoo visitors.

“We worked real hard to get the gorillas outside,” Hanna recalled. “We passed our first levy in 1985, and we got the funding to make some improvements. It’s all from people believing in you and seeing results and then being willing to invest in more projects.”

Over the years, in addition to acquiring many more land animals and creating habitats for them, the Columbus Zoo has added an aquarium with all sorts of aquatic life, including manatees. Next month, the zoo will be opening up a new exhibit, Heart of Africa, which will provide 43 acres for 150 animals to call home.

They have also added one of the world’s most popular water parks, Zoombezi Bay, as well as completely revamping an amusement park on the grounds and building a golf course.

“The zoo had a $238 million economic impact on Columbus last year,” Hanna said. “We went from 37 employees when I got there to the 2,400 employees we have now.”

While Hanna is now the director emeritus, leaving the day-to-day decision-making to a new zoo director, he sits on the board and makes major decisions regarding large projects. In fact, he currently lives in a home on the grounds of the zoo, but he also owns a home in Africa.

“I remember watching Marlon Perkins and ‘Wild Kingdom’ as a little boy, and I never dreamed that I would be able to travel to Africa. Now, we have a house there!” Hanna said.

Hanna credits his success in his chosen field to his having taken the advice of his father to heart.

“My dad said there were three words to success: hard work and enthusiasm. Three words. That means, ‘Work hard, and love what you do,’” Hanna recalled.

It was that hard work and his love for animals — first as an assistant to veterinarians, then as a pet shop owner, and finally as a zookeeper — that brought Hanna to where he is now: Sharing that love for animals with audiences around the country.

“People know that it will be fun,” Hanna said of the show.

Tickets for the May 9 show, which begins at 7:30 p.m., can be purchased through the Mendel Center Box Office by calling (269) 927-1221 or by visiting www.lmcmainstage.org. They range in price from $28 to $38.

An additional opportunity is a “Wild Adventure” family-style dinner where Jack will make an appearance, and guests are encouraged to wear their favorite safari outfits. Reservations must be made one week prior to that event. Non-refundable tickets for the dinner are $15 for adults and $10 for children ages 3-12.

More information about Jack Hanna, as well as fun and educational materials can be found at www.jackhanna.com.