Answer this: What is, arguably, (‘cause we all know Creekers love to battle for the truth) the hottest ticket in Walnut Creek?
With the trepidation of a restaurant reviewer loath to reveal a culinary jewel in fear of the place developing a three-month wait for reservations, we’ll tell all.
It’s Newsmakers, the speaker series at the Lesher Center that routinely sells out and, on Wednesday night, released hundreds of smiling, chattering audience members onto the downtown streets after 90 minutes of Jack Hanna and his amazing animals.
There’s something intensely pleasurable about being called “kid” in a soft, Tennessee accent while watching cuddly black Mountain Gorillas roll around and bury themselves in leafy nests. Although there were only a few under-18-year olds in the crowd, Hanna’s exuberance and the sight of a spiffy African Porcupine trundling across the Lesher stage brought out the spirit of youth in everyone.
“I learned three important words from my father,” Hanna began. “Hard work and enthusiasm and failure is failure to try.”
Ok, so that’s a lot more than three words. Who can quibble with Hanna’s solid tone and race-pace dispensation of pithy mini-lectures?
“Ninety percent of zoo animals come from other zoos, not from the wild,” he said, deflecting animal activists’ objections.
Hanna is the director of the Columbus Zoo and host of the hit television show, Animal Adventures.
“There are 222 accredited zoos and, last year, 176 million people visited them,” Hanna boasted, asserting that the number was “higher than baseball, basketball and football crowds combined.”
A video about the Oakland Zoo, the non-profit partner to Hanna’s talk, generated a buzz with Oakland's new veterinary medical center and 60-acre expansion. Even the animals backstage caught the enthusiasm, with excited squawks and screeches occasionally adding emphasis from behind the curtains.
Not just an entertainer, Hanna is also an educator and used the opportunity to expose the horrific impact of poaching and advocate for animal sanctuaries.
A Spider Monkey rescued from a dumpster in L.A. was the perfect example, its legs bent and deformed from neglect, of why sanctuaries matter.
“Laws prevent zoos from taking these animals,” Hanna explained, “so keep supporting those sanctuaries.”
Hanna answered a common question before it was even asked: Do you ever get scared?
“Of course, but that’s when I’ve screwed up. Ninety percent of the time when a person gets hurt, it’s the person’s fault,” he warned. “A grizzly bear can run 100 yards — the length of a football field — in six seconds. Never, ever run. Yell, and if that doesn’t work, email me and I’ll help you out.”
Laughter turned to “oohs” and “aahs” as Hanna showed a video clip of a growly beast as he pulled it from a cave in New Mexico.
The cub, whose mother was temporarily tranquilized, blinked in the light and bleated while Hanna cuddled and comforted it, before returning the young bear to the cave.
An irregular parade of animals followed, each accompanied by a tidbit of humor or a comment delivered as if Hanna had just discovered it:
Marmoset: “It’s the size of a thimble when it’s born!”
Lemur: “That’s gross!” (When the animal kissed its handler on the lips.)
Alligator: “This animal hasn’t eaten in a while.” And “say good bye to your mom!” when he invited a young boy to touch the animal.
Great Horned Owl: “This animal is on every continent except Antarctica.” And
“Hang onto your wigs!” when he allowed the owl to fly over audience heads.
The biggest laughs of the night came with Hanna’s bloopers, especially a David Letterman visit involving excretions of all kinds from a goat. And the most heartfelt commentary came with his sharing a precious hour with gorillas. Rwanda’s animals and people have a hold on Hanna. When he spoke of traveling across the world to spend 60 minutes in the company of a gorilla family, it was clear: Hanna was at home.