Jack Hanna, zookeeper, appreciates pet food industry help

The breadth of the modern pet food industry impresses Hanna.

Tim Wall Headshot Small Headshot
photo courtesy Jack Hanna
photo courtesy Jack Hanna

Jack Hanna, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo, television celebrity and conservation advocate, appreciates how pet food companies help zoos and admires the modern pet food industry.

Jack Hanna will present the keynote address at Petfood Forum 2018, to which he plans to bring a cheetah, sloth, penguins and kangaroos.

“The pet industry is a very important industry for this country,” Hanna said.

Hanna credits pet food companies with helping zoos to develop nutritious foods for exotic animals. In his early days at the Columbus Zoo, zookeepers hadn’t yet worked out precisely what to feed many of the animals under their care.

“We’d try and look for what's best for the animal, as in what they liked that doesn't give them diarrhea, but you don't have to shove it down their throat,” he said. “The pet food industry was very much involved in helping us create the proper foods for exotic animals there's no doubting that.”

From at least the 1950s and continuing to this day, pet food companies have helped zoos refine exotic animal nutrition, he said. Along with that, pet food businesses have helped with donations of food and in other ways.

The breadth of the modern pet food industry impresses Hanna, compared with the limited choices he remembers from decades past. The variety, quality and nutritional value amaze him when he looks around at pet trade shows where he has spoken.

“What is happening in the pet industry in unbelievable,” he said.

Hanna’s history with pets

Hanna’s connection to the pet food industry started long before he teamed up with pet food companies to care for exotic creatures. As a child and young man, he cared for animals on his family farm, at a local veterinarian’s office and in his own pet store. For example, when he was five years old, Hanna’s father gave him a parakeet, named Petey.

“My father said to me, ‘remember, Jack, you're responsible for that animal. You're going to take care of it for the rest of its life,’” he said. “My dad made it very clear he's a living creature and caring for him is my job.”

As a youth, Hanna also cared for Lance and Vandy, his first two dogs in a long series of canines. This year, he’s celebrating his fiftieth anniversary with his wife, Suzi, but this will be their first year without dogs. Last year, their Golden Retriever, Brice, and Labrador, Tasha, passed away.

At age 11, Hanna began working in a local veterinarian’s office in Knoxville, Tennessee. He started off scrubbing floors and washing windows for US$10 per week.

“He [the vet] thought I wouldn’t last one day, but from 11 to 16 years old, every single day, I never missed a day.”

Pets led Hanna to work in zookeeping

Eventually the time came for college. By then, he knew that caring for animals was what he wanted to do with his life. In 1970, he and his wife started Pet Kingdom, a pet store in Knoxville. Then they sold the pet shop when he was offered a job at a Florida zoo in 1973.

What Hanna learned from dogs, cats and Petey the parakeet, stayed with him as he moved on to bears, cheetahs and chimps.

“In the animal world, the first word is respect,” he said, speaking about his field expeditions, “You go there and you learn about that animal, like you should with a pet. You respect that animals’ home, just like a dog and cat. They’re not some little toy you throw around.”

Along with respect, Hanna said that pets teach other important lessons in life: love, responsibility and death. Although speaking of mortality seems grim, the animals we love teach us that life is impermanent.

Petfood Forum 2018

Petfood Forum provides an opportunity for pet food professionals from around the world to network, exchange ideas and do business with one another and with the industry's leading pet food manufacturers and suppliers. Petfood Forum 2018 will take place at the Kansas City Convention Center in Kansas City, Missouri, USA on April 23-25, 2018.

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