When I was a kid in Chicago the whole family used to gather around the black-and-white Motorola for Marlin Perkins' Sunday afternoon Zoo Parade, broadcast live from Lincoln Park. Today my sibling the PETA activist and I disagree vehemently on the nature of zoos. To him they're prisons; to me they look like endangered species' best refuge. Decide who's right on Oct. 18, when Jungle Jack Hanna - the sped-up, second-generation incarnation of Marlin Perkins - brings his animal ambassadors to Overture's Capitol Theater.
Unless you lived in the Windy City in the '50s, you probably remember Perkins as host of the original (1963-1988) Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom, reincarnated for the 21st century on Animal Planet. Hanna, who grew up watching Perkins' famous show, became director of the Columbus Zoo in 1978. He's written kids' books and fronted several nationally syndicated TV shows - the latest is Jack Hanna's Into the Wild, which, if you're an early bird, you can see locally Saturdays at 5:30 a.m. on ETVW (channel 14 on Charter). Last year Hanna, coming full circle, won the Association of Zoos & Aquariums' Marlin Perkins Award for Professional Excellence.
If that's not enough introduction, surely you know Hanna from his ubiquitous TV talk show appearances. Since the '80s he's done several broadcasts a year on both Good Morning America and Larry King Live. "King had never seen a wild animal when we started, and now he's hooked," Hanna says.
"We've done four or five shows for Ellen [DeGeneres], and we do Greta [Van Susteren] on Fox. I'm doing my 24th appearance on The Late Show. Letterman belittles me, not the beautiful animals. That makes it entertainment. But he and King are ambassadors for the animal world."
The animals he brings along are ambassadors, too, for their cousins in the so-called wild. "They're used to traveling and being on camera," he says. "The animal rights people think we pluck 'em out of the jungle. We don't. Ninety-nine percent of our animals come from zoos. They've been around people since birth."
Zoos and aquariums in the U.S. - there 220 of them, Hanna says - invest $20 million a year on helping endangered animals. "I'll put that up against any rights group in America."
According to PETA, the best way to help wild animals is to protect their native habitats. But Hanna says there's not much wild habitat left - and poaching incidents plague parks and reserves.
Zoos try to save animals from all kinds of dangerous situations. "The Atlanta Aquarium just got some new whale sharks by going to Taiwan and buying permits to kill 'em," Hanna says. "Those sharks are safe now instead of winding up in somebody's soup. If we didn't have zoos, half these animals would be extinct."
Hanna will entertain and educate you with at least a dozen animal emissaries, plus favorite video clips from his TV shows. "My show's fun if you're 3 or 100 years old," he says. He hopes you'll get hooked, watch his new TV show, and consider what wildlife conservation takes these days.
Plus, if you've never seen a long-legged, big-eared, Egyptian-looking cerval cat, a fat ol' venomous snake, or a doggy, whiskery Southeast Asian binturong, live and in person, you're in for a thrill.