Call him the $50 million man.
“Maybe you could compare him to what Disney or Mickey Mouse are to Orlando,” said Brian Ross, the president and chief operating officer of Experience Columbus, the city’s tourism and convention bureau.
“He’s that big.”
In 2002, a zoo-commissioned study by an outside agency pegged Hanna’s publicity value to the zoo and the city at $41 million.
Today, it would be $50 million or more, said Kate Oliphint, Hanna’s assistant. No wonder the zoo board is a bit worried about the effect Hanna’s retirement — far in the future, he says — might have. The board has appointed a committee to consider how to replace Hanna as the zoo’s ambassador.
Hanna first stepped onto the national stage on Good Morning America in 1983, with the zoo’s twin baby gorillas in tow. His quirky, off-the-cuff style brought repeat visits and, in 1985, his first appearance on the Late Show With David Letterman.
Soon, Hanna could barely keep up with calls begging him to go on air with a porcupine or a huge snake or a cockroach — unpredictable as they can be.And Hanna, always in his khakis and safari hat, is as unpredictable as the animals — a one-man, fast-talking, homespun quote machine who is as funny as he is knowledgeable.
Like when he recalled being flustered at meeting beautiful actress Bo Derek: “I said, ‘You know, you’re the nicest animal I ever interviewed.’ I meant to say you’re the nicest ‘person’ I ever interviewed. She said, ‘That’s the nicest compliment I ever got.’ “Or when he was contemplating an overweight gorilla: “He’s either overweight or pregnant. Maybe he’s female. Bigger mistakes have been made.”
Larry King Live, Hollywood Squares and Entertainment Tonight came calling. So did the Ellen and Maury shows. National news outlets such as CNN and Fox News began asking for Hanna’s commentary when an animal handler was killed on the job or a zoo visitor was injured anywhere.
“When a national event occurs, they want his credibility and his knowledge, so they bring Jack in as the expert,” Ross said.
Hanna honed his skills as director of the Columbus Zoo from 1978 until 1992. He then was named emeritus director so he could concentrate on guest appearances and the TV series he has hosted and produced.
Jim Maddy, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, considers Hanna “the best-known ambassador globally for everything having to do with zoos.”
In part, he said, it’s because Hanna gets his message across in a positive, upbeat way that holds the audience’s attention.”His mind’s always working, but sometimes the filter that most of us have isn’t there, and that’s his personality,” Ross said.
“He’s just himself, and he endears himself to everybody quite quickly.”Other zoos have high-profile staff members who sometimes appear on television, but none comes close to Hanna’s star power, Maddy said. “Jack is the dean of all those folks.”
Not everyone is head over heels for Hanna. Members of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals believe that he’s exploiting animals when he takes them on television.
“PETA doesn’t support the use of animals for our entertainment in any way,” said Delcianna Winders, director of captive-animal law enforcement for the organization. That includes having animals in zoos, she said.
Still, Hanna has a huge following. Nielsen Media Research estimates that 3.4 million people watched a five-minute Hanna appearance on Letterman in January, with a publicity value of $3.75 million.
A marketing-research firm concluded that Hanna’s newest show, Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown, and his other weekly show, Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild, were seen by 4.2 million households a week last year.
For Columbus, that means “a regular shout-out on the national stage,” Ross said. “We don’t have those opportunities very often. Jack’s been able to be that lighting rod for Columbus.”Hanna makes unpaid appearances at zoo and aquarium fundraisers across the country and lobbies congressional leaders on animal, zoo and conservation issues.
He spends about 80 nights a year at his home in Columbus, said Oliphint, his assistant. At the zoo, he attends board meetings, participates in special events, and films segments for his shows and zoo commercials. In the community, he speaks at fundraisers and various meetings.
“He’s an icon to our city. He and the city are one and the same,” Mayor Michael B. Coleman said. “He’s irreplaceable, and I don’t say that about many people. People love him all over the world.”
Someday, Hanna knows, he won’t be able to keep up the same pace. He’s 66. He had partial replacements in both knees last May. Friends, family and staff members think he needs to slow down.
“I don’t think, technically, he’ll ever be able to retire,” Oliphint said. “He lives and breathes what he does.”
But Hanna is concerned about how the zoo he loves will be affected once he’s not the darling of Letterman or CNN.
“I want to make sure it continues when I’m gone,” he said at a recent zoo-board meeting. “I’d hate to see the zoo lose what amounts to tens of thousands of dollars in free advertising every year.”
At his prompting, the board has established a “legacy” committee to evaluate how Hanna might be replaced.
Other zoos and aquariums would love to find someone like him to fill the national spotlight and get the free publicity, Hanna said.
“They’re like a bunch of buzzards, waiting for me to kick the bucket,” he laughed.”We’ve built this thing. It would be stupid not to carry it on. Everybody’s replaceable.”
(c)2013 The Columbus Dispatch (Columbus, Ohio). Distributed by MCT Information Services.