"Jungle" Jack Hanna gets a kick out of making David Letterman squirm and jump from his seat with visits from neck-biting anteaters, hungry vultures and other strange creatures.
"I have a lot of fun on Letterman," Hanna, 64, said in a telephone interview from Jupiter, Fla., where he witnessed a sea turtle release.
In the traveling version of his show coming to Long Island, the zookeeper and globe-trotting wildlife conservationist may stage a similarly creepy animal encounter.
"I might have a volunteer come up and meet a 10-foot tall snake," Hanna said.
ZOOKEEPER TO TV STAR
Raised on a Tennessee farm, Hanna moved to Nashville at age 17, intent on becoming a zookeeper. "I thought it would be fun to be like Marlin Perkins and travel the world, although I had never left the state of Tennessee," he said. He started off cleaning cages and eventually became director of the zoo and aquarium in Columbus, Ohio, where he remains director emeritus.
The TV appearances began 27 years ago with a story on "Good Morning America" and continued with regular gigs on Letterman (26 years) and the recently ended "Larry King Live" (21 years). He also starred in the nationally syndicated "Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures." His current TV show, "Jack Hanna's Into the Wild," won an Emmy for Outstanding Children's Series.
Four years ago, Hanna began taking his show on the road. He likes to improvise. "No show is ever the same, I never know what I'm going to say," Hanna says.
He does follow a basic formula: After introducing two or three animals, he'll tell a story, relate "fun facts about animals" and show a video clip from travels in Africa or other far-flung places. He'll also sign autographs, take audience questions and may coax a cheetah - he calls it "the fastest land animal" - to purr into a microphone.
Hanna's staff said the show will feature between 15 and 20 animals, including baby cheetahs, a lynx and a member of the mongoose family called a palm civet. Also: a three-banded armadillo native to the American Southwest, four South American penguins, a kangaroo and possibly a warthog, said spokeswoman Erin Sites.
A DANGEROUS PROFESSION?
Hanna travels far and wide with his family, discovering new animals and cultures. Interviewed the day after he turned 64, he said, "I should be ready for retirement, but ... I love what I do."
Like his friend the late "Crocodile Hunter" Steve Irwin, Hanna has had run-ins with animals in the wild. "I've been bitten by an anaconda, and by a tree snake, in the neck," he said. He blames himself for these injuries. He added, "My first obligation is to the animals - if I get hurt, I don't care."
However, all the animals in his traveling show are from zoos, mainly from Hanna's home base at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, he said.
THE MENAGERIE IS THE MESSAGE
Hanna says he wants to educate audiences about wildlife conservation's impact on human life.
"I don't talk about the doom and gloom," he says. He adds, "They learn something without ever knowing it." Explains Hanna: "What happens to our resources and animals will eventually happen to human life."