Without my handlers in the promotions department, there would be no Good Morning America or Letterman or Larry King Live for Jack Hanna—no television shows of any kind, for that matter. In fact, I probably couldn't give a speech at a grade school without somebody to help me with the animals.
I do about forty to fifty live shows a year, too, in which the handlers are indispensible. I mostly just do the talking, speaking to the audience about the animals, trying to tell them things they can relate to. The handlers continue to have the animals entering and exiting the stage, pointing out details on the animal as I speak. We'll show them the quills of a porcupine or explain that a binturong smells like buttered popcorn—fun facts that will help the audience walk away remembering information about that animal.
Before and after the shows, I autograph postcards for everyone who wants one. I see everyone from toddlers to Red Hat ladies, animal lovers all. After the shows, the handlers bring out some of the animals for a little show-and-tell. Everyone seems to love that. Be it television or a live theater show, I have three or four handlers stationed off-stage, ready to take care of any situation that might arise. They know when or when not to come on, when to keep an animal from going into the audience. They're a very dedicated group of people.
The keepers feel fortunate to go on national TV; they also get to travel, and they play a part in our various public relations programs. They receive credit for their hard work back at the zoo that they might not ordinarily receive if the Columbus Zoo weren't in the spotlight. I try to give everyone the opportunity to participate, and I'm grateful that they do it with so much enthusiasm. I could never do it without them.
Naturally, I consider television and live shows important educational tools for the benefit of wildlife. However, taking animals on national television has been a bone of contention among my critics in the zoo world and animal rights activists. They've said that I'm showboating, that I'm misrepresenting wildlife, that the alien conditions cause the animals undue stress and that these trips generally serve little purpose. I couldn't disagree more. Although the regulations are getting tougher and the list of acceptable outreach animals is shrinking, I'll continue to do everything I can to bring these animals to the public as a means of promoting animal conservation and awareness.
Entertainment-oriented shows reach large audiences, audiences that might not be in tune with the worldwide wildlife situation. If we can capture the attention of the millions of young people who watch the Letterman show, we can gain new recruits to the role of conservation. The national exposure of well-known television personalities endorsing our zoos and supporting endangered wildlife is invaluable, and the live animals that appear on the tube are our best salesmen.