Jack Hanna directs a kangaroo off the walking path at the the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium on May 29, 2018. [Adam Cairns / Dispatch]

John Switzer: Reporting on Jack Hanna was never boring

When I was a young reporter, I was given the assignment of covering the Columbus Zoo, back when that was its full name because the aquarium had not yet been built.

At that time, Jack Hanna was fairly new in his career as director of the zoo. I got to know him very well, and working with him was never boring.

He had two traits that I really liked. One was he always returned my phone calls, no matter where he was in the world. That was big for a reporter on deadline.

If I had to talk to him, I would call the zoo and employees would get in touch with him, even if he was in the most remote part of Africa.

On top of that, whenever he went anywhere to talk about the zoo, he always took animals with him.

He said people would never fully appreciate an animal unless they could see it upclose and perhaps even touch it.

I remember one Christmas season, the zoo folks came Downtown to wish people a happy holiday. One of the animals they brought when they visited The Dispatch was a young leopard, and I still remember what a pleasure it was petting it.

Hanna even brought animals when he talked at my church, right in the sanctuary.

One of the stories I wrote while covering the zoo was when a rare, exotic goose on loan from the Cincinnati Zoo met its demise.

The goose was allowed to roam the zoo grounds, but it had the bad habit of pecking visitors on the backs of their legs.

One day a work crew was doing a job on the zoo grounds, and the goose was tormenting a couple of the workers.

They complained to their foreman and he jokingly said, “Ah, throw it to the cheetahs.”

The cheetahs were kept in a fenced-in area, and that’s exactly what the workmen did. They threw the goose over the fence.

I called Hanna, and he didn’t try to cover it up. As I remember it, one of the first things he said was, "Have you ever seen how fast a cheetah hits its prey?”

He said it is like a speeding bullet. He told me exactly what had happened. I appreciated that.

Then another time, I was accompanying Hanna, the zoo veterinarian and gorilla keepers to England. Over there, a man who had a private zoo near London had revolutionized the way gorillas were kept.

He would put one big silverback male in an enclosure with multiple females and their young, and they all lived peacefully together because that’s the way they lived in Africa.

Before that, zoos had thought the animals would rip up one another if put together.


Jack Hanna's antics on TV put Columbus Zoo in national spotlight

The result of our trip to England is the gorilla villa at our zoo, where a whole family lives peacefully together.

But the thing I most remember about that adventure was one evening in London when, after dinner, the entourage decided to take a walk near Buckingham Palace.

The palace grounds were separated from the sidewalk by a tall, ancient wall.

As we walked along, one of the zoo people said to me, “Boy, I would sure like a piece of that wall for a souvenir.”

Like a dummy, a little farther along I noticed a loose chip on that wall and gave it to her.

In a nanosecond we were surrounded by six police officers.

I immediately told myself, “I know I am going to jail.” Hanna turned around and walked up to one of those policemen and rapped him on the side of his helmet.

“What are those things made of anyways,” he asked.

I said to myself, “Now I know we’re going to jail.”

I told the police what I was doing, and they explained that recently a stranger had walked into the queen’s bedroom and sat down on the edge of her bed. That story had made all the papers around the world. As a consequence, the police and military were on high alert, and I think they had the wall wired for sensitivity.

The policemen were amused, probably because of Hanna, and told us to go on our way.

That’s the way it is with Hanna. He immediately makes a good impression on folks, and they like him.

John Switzer is a retired Dispatch columnist.