Montana People - Jack Hanna

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Montana People - Jack Hanna

People & Place | 04/04/2007
Jack Hanna, Montana

Jack Hanna—the silver-haired, animal and wildlife expert from television talk shows, recognized rejuvenator of the Columbus (Ohio) Zoo, and longtime world traveler as host of “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures”—flat out loves Montana.

He discovered the Big Sky State in 1982, when he was invited to speak in Billings.

“I came out to do some speeches,” he says. “Montana didn’t have a zoo then. The next morning I went to catch my Northwest flight and the plane didn’t work, so I rented a car and drove out of Billings into Columbus...to the little town of Nye. The road dead ends in the Beartooth Wilderness...and I couldn’t believe how gorgeous it was and I knew, even though we didn’t have a lot of money, that I was going to buy some land and build a cabin.”

One month after completing his hideaway—a place where he and his wife Suzi and their three girls (Kathaleen, Suzanne and Julie) could pursue their love of hiking and fishing—it was threatened by the wildfires of 1988.

”Yellowstone’s Hellroaring Fire came down from Cooke City,” he says, “and stopped within eight miles of the cabin.”

In 1996, another big fire season in Montana and the year that People Magazine named Jack one of America’s “Most Beautiful People,” he discovered the Flathead Valley.

“I was here doing some stuff in a fire camp when I drove by Flathead Lake,” he says, “ and I thought it was the prettiest place in the world.”

It took him eight years to find his special spot...a few miles outside of Bigfork. Not uncharacteristically, it turned out to be a steep bit of ground that his realtor thought impossible.

“He said to me, ‘You can’t build on a hillside,’ but we got out and walked down the hill, and I said. ‘I’m going to make a stupid offer.’ It was the best investment I ever made,” he says. “We had to mortgage something to afford it, but the home we’ve built here is awesome.”

Designed to accommodate the slope, Jack’s abode offers spectacular views of sky and water, and it’s where the 60-year-old, Tennessee-born, son-of-a realtor wants to retire some day. According to Jack’s assistant, Kate Oliphint, the family spends as much time in Montana as Ohio, where Jack still works as Director Emeritus for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.

The rest of the time, he’s traveling. On the day of our interview, he’s headed to Las Vegas to pitch a new television program: “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild.” Oliphint describes it as “modern update on ‘Animal Adventures’,” Jack’s syndicated TV series (1993-2004).

The new show “will still have the conservation stories,” says Oliphint, but it will be “less scripted” and reveal more of what it takes for Jack and his family and crew to capture those amazing moments on film. Oliphint also promises “more of the fun Jack,” the charming animal handler with the humorous outtakes that “Good Morning America” fans have been enjoying for 23 years. Also a regular (gratis) guest of “Larry King Live” and “Late Night with David Letterman,” among other programs, Jack says it’s important that he be an effective educator rather than a showman.

“I never tried to be on TV,” he says. “I don’t have an agent or a manager. Kate and I do everything and we love doing it. We do it for the publicity for our cause. When I started my thing, there were only two animal shows. Today, there are 29.”

When asked about Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin—who died last summer while filming a documentary—Jack calls his conservation colleague “a tremendous communicator and showman,” and then the discussion turns to the topics of danger, risk, and Jack’s style of working with wild animals.

“We film the animal in his natural habitat,” he says. “It’s about respect. If someone comes into your house, you’d expect some respect. It’s the same with the animals in the wild. They are dangerous, but 99% of the times I’ve been hurt, it’s been my fault. ...If you think you’re invincible, you’re going to get into trouble.”

Jack began working in Columbus in 1978, in part, because of that fragility of life. His youngest daughter (now a healthy adult who works at the Zoo) was ill—and when he learned that the city needed a zoo director and the local hospital specialized in childhood leukemia, he agrees, fate was at work. In short order, Julie was in remission and he was on his way to being famous as “Jungle Jack” Hanna, the zealous zookeeper known for picking up trash after hours and using television to forward his message of conservation. By 1983, Jack had his own show “Hanna’s Ark” and was making his debut on the national talk-show circuit. Yet, when he stepped down from his fulltime duties at the Zoo in 1992, it was the upgrade to habitat-based environments that he listed as his proudest accomplishment.

“Animals in zoological parks are ambassadors for their wild cousins,” Jack says, explaining, “99% of the animals in a zoo come from other parks. We have a great breeding program.”

Jack also admires his industry’s ability to influence young people. Only 11 when he began working for the family vet, first as a volunteer and then as a paid summer employee, Jack says he learned “to always work twice as hard as everyone else” while at boarding school in Pennsylvania (ages 15-19) and at Muskingum College, where he met and married Suzi in his senior year.

After graduating in 1969, he says, “I went to work teaching science class and then at the Knoxville Zoo, cleaning cages for the next few years. Then I went into the Army and cleaned more cages.” Along the way, Jack also operated a pet shop and petting zoo on the family farm, worked for a wildlife adventure company, and served as a zoo director in Sanford, Florida.

“Zoos teach people to love animals,” he says, “and that leads them to want to save wildlife . Last year, 145 million people went to zoos and aquariums. It’s a popular recreation: people go there and have fun and are educated about conservation.”

“In the last 30 years, we’ve begun to see that our resources are getting thin, that we’ve polluted the air and the water and wasted a lot of things.” That’s why he’s drawn to Montana, which he likens to Africa where people can “still see animals and cultures that existed 1,000 years ago.” He says the Treasure State is changing rapidly, but he credits the Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks Department with doing “a pretty good job of managing.”

Children of the Big Sky are blessed, he says. “In Columbus, we have a working farm where children can milk a cow or see a chicken, pet a goat. This is important, because many children don’t have the exposure that Montana children have. You still have working farms and ranches here. When I go to major cities throughout the country, I meet children who’ve never seen a cow. Some of the kids are frightened of these animals.”

He also credits Montana’s hunting culture with creating an animal-sensitive environment. “Many people who object to hunting don’t realize that hunters are some of the best conservationists we have.”

Always a nature lover, Jack’s first pet was reportedly a bluegill fish. There are also stories about a youthful collection of rabbits (set free to escape sale to a neighboring farmer) and a donkey hidden behind a dorm room. So perhaps it’s not such a leap to accept Jack’s humorous appearance in a Neal McCoy country-music video called “Billy’s Got his Beer Goggle’s On.” The joke is that after a couple of beers, Jack and some of his exotic animal friends don’t look too bad to Rob Schneider’s lonely Billy.

“Neal and I have been buddies for years,” Jacks says. “We met when I was a presenter at the Country Music Awards.”

In 2005, McCoy turned up at a benefit in Whitefish for the Charlotte Edkins Animal Shelter. The event—which featured a host of celebrities, including Bo Derek and John Corbett—raised more than $500,000.

“Jack has such a heart for animals,” says Shelter Development Director Brad Seaman, “that his involvement with our fundraiser seemed the most natural thing in the world. [He] helped compile the guest list and his participation insured that most who were invited made it a point to attend....”

Jack also donated “a vacation stay at his home on Flathead Lake as one of the items for the live auction.” The property features four guest cabins that can be rented at the family’s discretion.

Says Jack, “I’ve been to every continent in the world at least twice. I’ve been to Africa 50 times. I have a small cottage in Rwanda near a preserve for gorillas, but I dream of retiring to Montana. Suzi loves to trout fish. That’s our dream to retire in a few years and fish and camp and hike.”

And, of course, he’ll animal watch. Here in western Montana, he likes the wild turkeys and deer. He also finds himself thrilled by hummingbirds and squirrels. “As I get older in life,” he says, “it’s not the big things that fascinate me so much.”

As for his dream home waiting on the northeastern shore of the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi: ”It’s a little more moist up there. It’s not as dry as southern Montana, but we love the flowers, cherry trees and wildlife.”

He also loves to drive long-distance. “It bothers me to drive 40 miles around big cities,” he says. “Sometimes I can just get in the truck and drive 1500 miles. I always like to be going somewhere. In Montana, driving is great way to see the country. We’ve got some of the best wildlife in the world, the people are neat; I love hiking, so it’s also fun to get out of the truck.”

Listening to his rush of words with the occasional southern drawl, I can’t help thinking that it illustrates this self-described “hyper” man. So I ask one last question: Will he, in fact, ever retire?

He laughs and says, “I doubt it. But I do love Montana.”


~ Glenda Wallace is a freelance writer and animal lover who enjoys watching bald eagles sail above the Clark Fork River near her home in western Montana.