Jack Hanna’s Circus Stunt

When zoos are looking to draw more visitors through their gates, they will often hold special events—exhibit grand openings, birthday parties for popular animals, or holiday light displays. Some are certainly more creative than others. Let’s just say that Jungle Jack Hanna, in his early days as director of the Columbus Zoo, had a few ideas of his own.

Hanna, one of the most famous faces of the zoo world from his appearances on the David Letterman Show and Good Morning America to his energetic public appearances promoting wildlife conservation, was hired as the director of the Columbus Zoo in 1978. At the time, the zoo was in really bad shape—only 350,000 visitors walked the 90-acre grounds that year. In fact, many Columbus residents didn’t even know the city had a zoo. Hanna, although pretty much a stranger to the world of zoo directorship, had just the energy and positive outlook that the zoo needed to bring a boost to the zoo’s budget, staff morale, and overall reputation in the zoo community. You would even find him walking the grounds after hours picking up trash.

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Jack Hanna doing what he did best—entertaining. Photo: Columbus Zoo

In those early years as director, his zest for public relations helped him procure some big donations from prominent Columbus businesspeople. His energy and lofty aspirations were quite attractive, and he made it hard for these donors to turn him down. The first big project of his directorship was the renovation of an old elephant yard into an outdoor gorilla habitat. The gorillas were the most popular animals at the zoo, especially with a celebrity in their midst. Colo was the first gorilla born in captivity in 1956, and the Columbus Zoo’s gorilla program, also known for its successful breeding, was very well respected in the zoo community. The outdoor yard was the first project of many that would bring animals out of cages and into more natural habitats.

As improvements were being made and visitorship began to climb, Hanna also was becoming one of the most prominent faces in the city. From 1981 to 1983, Hanna hosted Hanna’s Ark, a television program that aired on the local CBS affiliate in Columbus. He and his co-host, eleven-year-old daughter Kathaleen, brought the zoo animals into Central Ohio residents’ homes on a regular basis. Thus began Hanna’s television career, making both himself and the Columbus Zoo household names.

During the early 1980s, however, the Columbus Zoo experienced some cuts in federal funding, and the zoo needed to generate more revenue locally. Jack Hanna’s creativity and enthusiasm went to work overtime, as what he came up with was pretty darn crazy. Desperate times call for desperate measures, right?

[W]orking with him was never boring.  –John Switzer, zoo reporter for the Columbus Dispatch, on Jack Hanna

The Flying Wallendas, a popular circus and aerial stunt act, was known for entertaining audiences all over the world—tightrope walking across massive gorges, waterfalls, and giant sports stadiums—often with no safety netting. In 1978, Karl Wallenda, the patriarch of the famous family, fell to his death during a performance in Puerto Rico. Since the incident, booking the Wallendas was viewed as super risky. Apparently not to Jungle Jack! He contacted Enrico “Rick” Wallenda, who was looking to make his comeback, and offered to hire him for an event at the zoo. Wallenda enthusiastically accepted.

Hanna himself admits that what happens next was really boneheaded in retrospect. . . .

On May 15, 1982, fifteen thousand visitors flooded through the zoo gates to witness Rick Wallenda tightrope walk a span of 80 feet across the outdoor tiger enclosure. No one was injured or killed, and the crowd was quite entertained. At one point, Wallenda dazzled his spectators with a headstand, and at another he faked a fall. The nervous Hanna muttered, “Can’t he just walk across?” The tiger was given a huge steak bone to gnaw on, so, other than emitting a few growls it was not super interested in the circus act going on 40-feet above it. Afterward, Wallenda called the act “kind of a thrill.”

Enrico Wallenda
Enrico Wallenda performing above the tiger enclosure at the Columbus Zoo, May 1982. Photo: Columbus Dispatch

However, the professional zoo community, particularly the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums (AAZPA, now the AZA), was not as amused. The executive director chastised Hanna for acting in a way that violated AAZPA ethics. Hanna explains, “I had exploited the Bengal tigers through showmanship, not zookeeping. . . . I apologized. . . . But deep down inside I was still thrilled about all those people we drew. Looking back today, however, I would rather have no visitors than initiate a performance like that again.” Hanna brought the zoo back from near extinction on his energy and good vision, but that was not one of his better ideas.

I’m a promoter. They never know what I’m going to do next. —Jack Hanna, 1983

(This event was immediately followed by a tug-of-war match between Belinda the elephant and a group of Ohio State University athletes.)

The next year, Hanna received the publicity he needed, through more “natural” means. The zoo made history on October 25, 1983, when gorilla twins Macombo II (“Mac”) and Mosuba were born—the first set of gorilla twins born alive in a U.S. zoo. The zoo found itself in the national spotlight again; Hanna proudly introduced the new babies on Good Morning America (his first appearance on the popular show), and visitors flooded to the zoo to witness history. (Mac still lives at the Columbus Zoo, and Mosuba resides at the North Carolina Zoo.)

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Jack Hanna cradles twin baby gorillas, Mac and Mosuba. Photo from Jack Hanna’s Facebook page.

In terms of local financial support, beginning in 1985 local voters would pass the first of many tax levies to support the zoo’s improvement plans.

Today, the Columbus Zoo spans 588 beautiful acres, and over two million visitors enjoy the park annually. Hanna retired in 1992 but still serves as Director Emeritus and makes occasional appearances at the zoo. He is also very active in promoting wildlife conservation worldwide. As pronounced on the zoo’s website, “The staggering variety of animals, habitats, and immersive experiences that define today’s Columbus Zoo would not exist without the efforts and visionary leadership of America’s favorite zookeeper, Jack Hanna, and his commitment to making the world a better place for animals and people everywhere.”

Sources

Columbus Zoo website. https://columbuszoo.org/home/about

“Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.” Ohio History Central. http://www.ohiohistorycentral.org/w/Columbus_Zoo_and_Aquarium

Cox, Billy. “Chasing the Ghost.” Sarasota Herald-Tribune. http://chasingtheghost.heraldtribune.com/

Ellis, Mark. “Walk leaves tigers empty.” Columbus Dispatch, May 16, 1982: A1.

Gray, Kathy Lynn. “Jack Hanna: Zoo’s master planner and builder to celebrate 35 years.” Columbus Dispatch, September 15, 2013. https://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2013/09/15/master-plans-master-builder.html

“The Flying Wallendas.” Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Flying_Wallendas

Hanna, Jack. Jungle Jack: My Wild Life. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 2008.

Hood, Marshall. “Salesman in a Safari Suit.” Columbus Dispatch, June 6, 1982: G1.

“John Switzer: Reporting on Jack Hanna was never boring.” http://gatehousenews.com/jackhanna/john-switzer-reporting-jack-hanna-never-boring/