With only a few seconds until we were on, Charlie let the fox down without saying a word and reached into his pocket for a handkerchief to smother his bleeding finger. "Today, we have Jack Hanna with us from the Columbus Zoo," he said, cool and on cue, without any reference to the bite.
Meanwhile, I was holding a cougar, and the fox was running all over the set. Charlie asked me some questions very professionally, while I tried hard not to look at his finger, which was bleeding like a stuck pig.
"There weren't many things Charlie and I fought over; we didn't usually try to one-up the other. But every now and then we would fight over doing the Jack Hanna spot." —Joan Lunden
The minute the show was over, Charlie just asked me what kind of shots he needed, before rushing out the door to a doctor. I told him tetanus shots, but I did not mention that foxes can carry rabies. A photographer from the New York Post was there, and Charlie got a lot of mileage from the bite in the next day's paper. I was on Late Night the following week, and, predictably, Letterman had a few laughs at Charlie's and my expense.
Since that first appearance in 1983, I've continued to appear regularly on Good Morning America, now about once each month. The agreement that we have with Good Morning America is a prime example of how the public has changed in its perception of zoos. We're more concerned with preserving species than we are with showing off exotic animals. GMA wanted the viewer to learn something about animals (often about threatened or endangered species) and still enjoy the animal as well. (For Letterman, you can just turn that around.)
"It was fun television, but we were all impacted by Jack's love of animals, his dedication to educating people about animals, and his passion for protecting animals in zoos and in the wild." —Joan Lunden
Many people think that I earn big bucks from all the television shows I do, including Letterman and GMA. I am there to represent the Columbus Zoo and the animals, not to make a million. The expenses—which, with animal travel, can be considerable—are covered by the networks, not taxpayer dollars. But the amount of TV time that we accumulate in a year would come to millions of dollars if we had to buy it in advertising.
Now, what I do on the David Letterman show is different. My philosophy is similar to that of Walt Disney: "I would rather entertain and hope that people learned something than educate people and hope they were entertained." I'm a character on David Letterman, and I accept that role—it's not all that much different from me in real life anyway, especially when I'm away from the zoo. It's also very different from what I do for Good Morning America, and it reaches a different audience, possibly an audience not typically exposed to animal programming. But on Letterman, people mostly play for laughs, which is something we've managed to do for years now without demeaning or hurting any of the animals.
And along with the laughs, people do learn about animals on the Letterman shows too. I'd like to think that even David Letterman, between all the jokes and the put-downs, has managed to learn something about animals, not necessarily from me but from the animals themselves. They're the real stars.