COLUMBUS (WCMH) — The Columbus Zoo is responding to claims made in a documentary over animal use on television in general and toward former Zoo director Jack Hanna in particular.
The documentary, The Conservation Game, looks at the use of exotic animals and argues for tighter restrictions on the breeding, ownership and use of big cat cubs in the United States. It features clips of Hanna, who was with the Columbus Zoo from 1978 to 2020 and made several television appearances over the years.
The film claims the Columbus Zoo paid vendors for cubs, which appeared during public engagement and on national talk shows. Then, according to the film, when the animals grew and matured, the zoo would give them back to the vendors.
“He will literally say or at least suggest that they go back to the Columbus zoo, where they are raised and where they will spend, you know, the rest of their lives,” said the film’s director, Michael Webber. “And what we found is if you actually go to the Columbus zoo, or you go to these facilities that are named on television, what you’ll find is that these animals aren’t there.”
Columbus Zoo Senior Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation Dr. Jan Ramler says the zoo no longer has relationships with those vendors or any vendors.
“The zoo at the time trusted, these businesses would provide lifelong quality care to these animals when they were returned. And in hindsight, that trust was mistaken,” said Dr. Jan Ramer, the zoo’s Senior Vice President of Animal Care and Conservation. “We can’t change the past. My gosh, I wish we could. But please rest assured that the Columbus Zoo everybody at the Columbus Zoo right now today believes in these changes.”
“The film advocates for the passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act now being considered in Congress,” a Zoo statement read. “The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium shares and applauds this goal.”
The zoo said it has made organizational changes based on issues raised in the documentary, “including ending all relationships with animal organizations mentioned in the film, championing passage of the Big Cat Safety Act, and no longer allowing any cats or primates off grounds for programming.”
Although the documentary has not been widely released, it premiered recently at the Santa Barbara Film Festival. In a Facebook post, it was described as following “Tim Harrison, a retired Ohio police officer, who stumbles upon a bombshell discovery while undercover at an exotic animal auction. His world is turned upside down as he starts an investigation to track down the whereabouts of rare and endangered big cats.”
The Conservation Game was directed by Michael Webber, a Cincinnati native.
Shortly after the documentary’s debut, Hanna’s family announced that he was suffering from dementia and withdrawing from public life. On Friday, Hanna family members issued a response:
“We cannot speak to the documentary as we haven’t had the opportunity to view it, and, we would never try to speak for our dad who, as we shared in April, is compromised by dementia,” the statement read. “What we can say emphatically is that he worked his entire career to better the animal world. He has had a hand in some of the world’s most positive and profound zoological advancements and on-the-ground conservation efforts around the world. He has always believed that the progress that has been made was just the beginning. Zoos will continue to change and grow. We’re confident that’s what dad would want – or even demand.”