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With cheetah speed, Hanna still sharing animal stories

Jack Hanna knows how to do this. He's been zipping all day, from a speech in Tucson to a layover in Houston with a flight delay that had him running to the gate to catch his flight to Florida.

Now he’s finally landed, relaxed in a car and on his phone. But his voice is still racing.

“Do you record this?” he asks. “I talk fast. Do you want me to talk slower?”

Speed onward, Jungle Jack. It’s how you do your thing.

Hanna, 70, is likely the most famous zookeeper in the world. The director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, he’s starred on multiple television shows, is a regular on ABC’s “Good Morning America” and CBS’ “The Late Late Show with James Corden.”

He was a decades-long favorite guest of David Letterman – Hanna and his animals made more than 100 appearances with the late-night legend – and he gives speeches and performs shows around the world.

His next stop is Western New York. On April 28, he brings “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild Live” to the Riviera Theatre in North Tonawanda. (Tickets for the 7:30 p.m. show are $33.50/$36.50.)

The 90-minute show includes a cheetah, sloth and penguin, among other Hanna animal friends, and video clips culled from among the 600 television shows Hanna has filmed in the last 30 years. That includes a clip of Hanna discovering a baby bear in New Mexico and a visit with the nearly extinct mountain gorillas of Rwanda.

(Hanna has a home in Rwanda, where there are only 900 mountain gorillas left. That species is significantly more rare than lowland gorillas, which are the ones you typically see in zoos, including the Buffalo Zoo. Lowland gorillas are native to the Congo and Hanna estimates there are about 200,000 of them in the world.)

There’s a blooper tape, too: An ostrich kicking Hanna where no man wants to be kicked. Hanna teaching Letterman to milk a goat … as the goat relieves itself in the bucket. A camel eating Hanna’s hair. Hanna attempting to eat like a monkey. (Six bananas in 60 seconds. He failed.)

He talks about all of this at a cheetah-like pace: fast and determined. Pre-determined, in many ways. With his “Jungle Jack” moniker, khaki clothes and ever-present safari hat, Hanna is masterfully branded. He’s loaded with sound bites, too.

Like this one: “If anyone ever asks me my favorite animal” – we didn’t ask, but he senses readers might be wondering – “I say, ‘Oh, my wife.’”

Hanna expands on that, packing a globe’s worth of explorations into a couple of sentences. He first visited Africa “in 1979 or '80” and saw a lion. He kept traveling from continent to continent, seeing gorillas, pandas, polar bears, kangaroos, penguins, even leaf cutter ants. (“You can follow them for miles on the ground.”) He really can’t pick a favorite, so “I just made it my wife,” said Hanna, who has three adult daughters with Suzi, his wife of 49 years.

Hanna is a passionate animal guy. He’s a family guy. He’s a media master, too, and in recent years has been using his notoriety for more than entertaining on television. In recent years, he’s emerged as a passionate defender of zoos and aquariums.

Last year, Hanna defended Cincinnati Zoo officials’ decision last year to shoot a gorilla that dragged a 3-year-old boy who fell into an enclosure. On “CBS This Morning,” he called it a choice between “human life and animal life.”

When a whale trainer was killed at SeaWorld in 2010, Hanna, while fully acknowledging the tragedy, still advocated for the benefits of raising whales in captivity. He brings it up on the phone now, too. There’s an educational value, he says, and also points out that “98 percent” of animals in captivity were born in zoos or aquariums.

“These animals have it better than most people throughout the world have it,” says Hanna, pointing out the animals have “multi-million-dollar homes” and calling zoos and aquariums “the arks of the world.”

He’s not convincing everyone, and he knows it. Without prompting, and without naming specific organizations, Hanna brings up the criticism of animal-rights groups. He’s been a target: People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals once described Hanna as an “animal pimp.”

His take: Everyone is working toward the same goal: Education, animal safety and preserving endangered species.

“I don’t like debating, but I sure love to do it now if I have to,” Hanna said. “We should all work together.”

PREVIEW

Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild Live

When: 7:30 p.m., April 28 in Riviera Theatre, 67 Webster St., North Tonawanda

Cost: $33.50-$36.50

Info: 692-2413, or rivieratheatre.org

Email: toshei@buffnews.com

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