Animal celebrity Jack Hanna notes 40 years at Columbus Zoo

COLUMBUS (AP) — As he chatted with the desk clerk working the hotel graveyard shift, the man in the khaki clothes and leather Outback hat wonders aloud if the cheetah sleeping in room 116 just might escape.

The young clerk’s eyes widen as Jack Hanna tells him that cheetahs can run more than 70 mph, and they like to go for the throat.

Just after sunrise when Hanna, still wiping the crust out of his brown eyes, returns to the lobby, the hotel worker is waiting for him. The only person who hasn’t recognized Hanna in two days says he was terrified half the night until his supervisor assured him he had fallen prey to one of Hanna’s playful jokes.

(There really is a cheetah sleeping in room 116, but he’s secure.)

“You got me good, Mr. Hanna,” said the clerk as one of the world’s most famous animal ambassadors put his arm around him for a selfie.

Hanna turns his attention to the growing crowd of fans who want an autograph.

One of the three women who work for Hanna and save him from himself multiple times a day, hands him a cellphone.

“You have to take this call,” she says.

Hanna ignores the request and continues signing autographs for the adoring fans who have transformed the hotel’s continental breakfast room into a red-carpet event. John “Jack” Hanna was born and raised on a farm in Knoxville, Tennessee, and now travels 220 days a year. He has lost track of where he is and what’s ahead for the day.

“Jack, it’s Saturday. You are in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and you have a show to do this afternoon,” she says, holding the phone out. “This is your producer, you have to talk to him.”

The producer of Hanna’s popular “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild” television show tells him he has won another Emmy award. It’s Hanna’s fifth.

“Hot dog!” Hanna yells.

“And congratulations,” he tells the producer.

He never says another word about the news that would have had most pouring champagne.

“Now what are we doing again today?” Hanna asks, laughing, knowing the eye roll and scolding are coming.

Hanna is most known for his love of animals, but it’s his genuine ability to connect with people from any culture that might be his true legacy.

Forty years ago, Hanna took over a small, dilapidated zoo in Columbus that many in the city didn’t even know existed. He painted bathrooms, shoveled animal waste, rebuilt the morale of his workers and established a network of generous donors. He eventually transformed the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium — which drew 2.3 million visitors last year — into one of the world’s best.

Now 71, Hanna is celebrating his 40th anniversary at the zoo as one of the most recognizable animal ambassadors and leaders in wildlife conservation.

“Jack really put Columbus, Ohio, on the map,” said Tom Stalf, president and CEO of the Columbus Zoo. “There are many animals we deal with every day that are highly endangered. If it wasn’t for Jack’s commitment to tell their story, to get people to connect with those animals, I promise you, the animals we have around this globe wouldn’t be as healthy as they are today.”

While Stalf runs the zoo’s daily operations back in Columbus, Hanna serves as its global rock star on trips such as the one to Scranton.

Hanna never considered himself old until a couple of months ago, when he pulled out his pill case on another trip and in it were vitamins and an assortment of other pills. He says it right in this moment to everybody and nobody, poking fun at himself for having to ask where he even is.

But the man once named People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful” people is in perpetual motion. He struggles to sleep every night. He can’t sit for long in a meeting.

The swarm of admirers finally dwindles just in time for Hanna to watch a few minutes of his own TV show, something he hasn’t done in years. But he’s soon distracted by an adorable little boy who wants to shake the hand of the man he, too, is watching on TV. Hanna signs another one of the autograph cards he carries to spare people from grabbing paper out of the trash or having him sign their chests.

This is the Hanna that most people know.

The funny, charming, lovable animal lover. The champion for charitable causes who has raised millions for wildlife conservation, humanitarian efforts and children’s organizations. The television personality who playfully harassed David Letterman with his animals for decades and introduced millions to faraway animal kingdoms.

Many people know Hanna’s impulsive side. As a college freshman, he brought a donkey to campus. He once asked his wife, Suzi, if she would breastfeed a baby chimpanzee. And as a new zoo director, he walked a camel inside the Ohio Statehouse to meet a governor who had no idea Hanna or the camel was coming.

Then there is the Hanna many don’t know.

The desperate father who sacrificed and risked everything to save his little girl. The man attacked on social media as the villain for defending Sea World on a national stage and, in another instance, being blamed in the media for not saving 48 exotic animals killed by authorities after they escaped near Zanesville.

The father of three daughters who has six grandchildren has quietly endured multiple back surgeries, two knee replacements and the insertion of a pacemaker earlier this year after some heart trouble. (Hanna is quick to say the heart episode that prompted the pacemaker wasn’t a heart attack and he was back to work five days later. But he does miss his chest hair.)

“People see the guy on TV with the beautiful family and amazing job that takes me around the world and think my life has been a dream,” Hanna says. “And don’t get me wrong — I have had an amazing life. But we have had our share of real hard times. But it was those hard, difficult things that always seem to lead us to something better.”