It all started with a parakeet named Petey.
Jack Hanna’s first pet, eventually laid to rest in a Kellogg’s Corn Flakes box, led to a lifelong fascination with animals.
Today, the tan, handsome 64-year-old is known as “Jungle” Jack Hanna, one of the nation’s most respected wildlife experts. The former executive director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Powell, Ohio, he spreads awareness about the natural world through countless public appearances with his “animal ambassadors.”
“I tell folks, ‘It’s a very simple solution,’ ” said Hanna, who visits San Luis Obispo on Sunday. “What happens to our resources — trees, air, water — will eventually happen to animal life (and) will eventually happen to human life.”
Ask Hanna to name his earliest pets, and he’ll tick off a list that includes Sparkle the beagle and Diamond the horse.
Hanna, who grew up on a farm outside of Knoxville, Tenn., had a childhood menagerie that included goats and ducks. He would catch fish in a nearby creek and keep them in the toilet bowl, or rescue sick rabbits and nurse them back to health.
Hanna’s parents never protested their son’s pets, he said, except in one instance.
“The only time they said ‘no’ was when I tried to buy a baby elephant,” recalled Hanna, who was 24 at the time.
Thankfully, the budding zookeeper found other uses for his talents — such as working for the family veterinarian for several summers.
After graduating from Ohio’s Muskingum College with a degree in political science, Hanna and his wife, Suzi, opened a pet shop and petting zoo. He served as the director of the Central Florida Zoo from 1973 to 1975, before being hired to head the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
When Hanna arrived in 1978, he discovered a small, cramped zoo “getting ready to close its doors.”
“The biggest thrill I have (today) is walking around the Columbus Zoo and seeing how much it’s grown,” said Hanna, the zoo’s director emeritus since 1992.
More than 2.3 million people visited the zoo in 2010, drawn by attractions such as the Zoombezi Bay water park, the Safari Golf Shop and the newly opened Polar Frontier exhibit.
Still, it’s unlikely the zoo would have grown as much without Hanna’s foray into the national spotlight.
In 1983, Hanna appeared on “Good Morning America” to discuss the birth of twin gorillas at the Columbus Zoo. His debut on “The Late Show with David Letterman” came two years later.
“I was this young man running around telling people about animals,” said Hanna, citing “Wild Kingdom” host Marlin Perkins as one inspiration.
Over the years, Hanna has appeared on shows including “The Ellen Degeneres Show,” “Entertainment Tonight,” “Hollywood Squares” and “Larry King Live.”
He’s also hosted two television shows chronicling his international travels and love of wildlife — “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures” and the Emmy Award-winning “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild” — and written 11 books.
Hanna credits his success to his unpretentious “everyman” persona.
“I don’t use Latin words because I’m not that smart,” he quipped. “I’m talking to the average Joe Blow who can understand what I’m saying. When you see me on (TV), you think, ‘He’s a guy I can invite into the house and sit on the couch and have a drink with.’ ”
Between television tapings and personal appearances, Hanna is on the road 260 days of the year.
“I’ve never missed a show yet,” he said.
He has come close, however. Hanna was headed to his second “Late Night” appearance in 1986 when his flight was canceled. Luckily, a zoo board member had a twin-engine plane capable of transporting the zookeeper and his animals.
Hanna held a baby pygmy hippopotamus in his lap during the entire trip, he said, “But I didn’t miss the show.”
Even after decades in the public eye, Hanna seems reluctant to accept his status as a pop culture icon.
“I would never use the word ‘celebrity.’ I would never use the word ‘star,’ ” he said. “I get tired of looking at cameras all day long.”
Instead, he prefers to focus his efforts on conservation and education.
Each live show features video clips, anecdotes and appearances by a few of his feathered, furry and scaly friends. He also talks about the people and organizations working to make the world a better place for animals — such as the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust, which cares for orphaned elephants and rhinoceroses in Nairobi, Kenya.
“Our show is basically one that’s fun, but you leave the show saying, ‘I didn’t know that,’ ” Hanna said.