Zookeeper and television personality Jack Hanna returned to Busch Gardens for a wild weekend of entertainment and enlightenment.
"I just think the world of these parks," Hanna said. "Not one company in the world can come close to them."
His shows at Busch Gardens Williamsburg date back over 20 years; the appearances Saturday and Sunday were his first since the 2015 season.
Hanna's relationship with SeaWorld Entertainment, which owns Busch Gardens, dates back to 1968. That year, Hanna married Suzi Egli and traveled to Busch Gardens Tampa for their honeymoon; nine months and three days later, their first child was born. Almost 50 years later, the two are still married.
In that time, Hanna has appeared at SeaWorld and both Busch Gardens locations so many times that he's lost count. He already has plans to appear at the Tampa location again on Saturday and Sunday, with other east coast performances scheduled throughout April.
He praised the company's commitment to wildlife conservation and education, a goal that he shares.
"When I come to these parks, education to me is the number one goal," he said, emphasizing the potential impact on children in particular. "When they leave here, not knowing it, they've been educated."
Hanna has hosted his own TV shows, including "Jack Hanna's Into the Wild" and "Jack Hanna's Wild Countdown," both of which still air. He has also made recurring appearances on programs like "The Late Show with David Letterman" and "Good Morning America."
But Hanna said he has not forgotten about the animals in the process. He was the director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium from 1978 to 1992, and he remains its director emeritus.
"A lot of the stuff I do is for them. It's not for money," he said. "Education about the animal world leads to conservation."
Hanna talked about traveling to places like South America and Africa and talking to people of different cultures in an effort to cultivate understanding.
"Every audience has their own different viewers," he said. "I go to places where people haven't been exposed to the animal world."
That also translates to Williamsburg.
He mentioned misconceptions people might have about wolves, "one of the most iconic animals on earth." Their mysterious nature leads to misinformation, and even Busch Gardens' old roller coaster, the Big Bad Wolf, can reinforce that.
He emphasized their social nature, which includes feeding the old and sick members of the pack first.
"People don't do that," he said, and the way kids' expressions light up while learning about these and other creatures inspires him.
The Busch Gardens show began with a bald eagle, an animal that Hanna said still gives him chills. That's partly due to their American symbolism and partly because of their killer talons.
A serval cat and baby cheetahs played like kittens to "awws" from the audience, and a Harris's hawk incited gasps as it flew through the audience between trainers.
Other animals featured include a porcupine, a lemur and a black-footed penguin from South Africa named Trout. All the while, Hanna informed the audience about the animals' lives and history.
Guests also had the option to pay an additional fee for the opportunity to eat breakfast or lunch with Hanna in between shows.
Busch Gardens zoological manager Tim Smith lauded Hanna's years of service, expertise and knowledge.
"He brings an attitude to the industry," he said. "He's an unwavering supporter. He just adds to our very strong, education-based program."
Smith believes Hanna's combination of facts and fun make a profound difference.
"We believe that if people are engaged with something, they're going to do something about it," he said. He encouraged people to "explore, engage and act" by volunteering, donating to conservation funds and simply going out to enjoy nature.
It's all in the interest of turning the wheels of preservation.
"We're all a cog in that future," Smith said, citing Hanna as a major motivation. "He's inspired a lot of us to keep doing what we do."
Again, he emphasized Hanna's focus on the animals.
"He doesn't want the cameras on him," he said. "He wants them on the animals."
Hanna credits animals with teaching him that "having fun is the best part of being alive," and he looks forward to returning to Busch Gardens again in the future.
He condensed his philosophy of combining entertainment and education down to one ultimate goal: "Touch the heart and teach the mind."
Birkenmeyer can be reached by phone at 757-390-3029.