As America’s most famous zookeeper, Jack Hanna captured the attention and hearts of scores of children — and grown-ups — with his animal-centric programming and TV appearances over the past 30-plus years. He passed on a passion and enthusiasm for wildlife and conservation to generations of kids and adults, earning their admiration and gratitude along the way. But his road to success wasn’t always easy or enviable.

“Today nobody makes much fun of you when you want to be a zookeeper,” he tells Nfocus. “Nobody. It's amazing. Everyone wants to do this or [be] a marine biologist.”

As a teenager and young man, Jack’s dream of being a zookeeper was met with ridicule and disbelief. His journey to becoming one of the foremost animal experts in the world was littered with roadblocks, including a horrific animal attack on his property in the early stages of his career and his own daughter’s battle with leukemia. (She beat the disease, and today, in her 40s, she works alongside her dad at the Columbus Zoo.) Now, at 71 years old, Jack has conquered all of that and so much more, following the advice his father gave him as a child. “Four words,” he recalls his father telling him. “Love what you do.”

Jack’s love for wildlife is contagious, and on a recent visit to the Nashville Zoo, he shared it with hundreds of fans. The fast-talking, magnetic and easily excitable zookeeper chatted with Nfocus about his craziest animal encounters, his love for the wild and the hardest thing he’s ever had to do.

What do you think about the Nashville Zoo from the last time you were here?

I worked in a zoo in Knoxville when I was 11 years old, cleaning cages, so obviously I've seen a lot of zoos throughout the world. But I'm gonna say, I can tell you now that this has to be one of the top zoos in the world. And when I say that, I don't say it necessarily because of landscaping or the animals — it's just how everything is set up in here. It's like you're really there.

I mean, one of the primate exhibits out here, the tree's about a hundred feet tall with water around it. … And you get the conception that you're looking at them right where they lived. The landscaping is beyond belief. But the thing is, [Rick Schwartz’s] mind has always been this way, to design. It's because he loves what he does. He could be hired by every zoo in the country because of his design ability. … The creativity the man has, I'm telling you, is beyond belief. I'm having a hard time just keeping up over the last two hours. I was here eight or 10 years ago, and I can't even recognize what was here 10 years ago. I hope the people in Nashville understand that this is something that is iconic.

How did you get your start in zookeeping?

I was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, on a farm in 1947. I always loved animals. I was raised with animals, and then I went to work for a veterinarian at the age of 11 years old. Dr. Roberts is gone now, but he had a little clinic in Knoxville, and my dad would either drop me off on the way to work, [or] when I got a little older he let me take the bus. I never missed one day. When I was about 15, I cleaned windows and washed dogs and watched him do operations. And he was also the veterinarian of Knoxville Zoo. At a lot of zoos back then in those days — 1950s, ‘60s, even ‘70s — a local veterinarian would be your [zoo] veterinarian. Number one, [they] didn't have a vet hospital. So that's when I went to Knoxville Zoo with [Dr. Roberts], and I saw it, and I came home and said to my dad, "I want to be a zookeeper, Dad." And then people made fun of me in high school, especially in college. Even the president of the college I went to — he's passed on now — he called me in the day before graduation. I got scared. I hadn't met the guy. He said, "Jack, you know something? This is amazing. You spent the four years here, the money to come here, and you want to be a zookeeper? I don't understand."

You’ve been a huge advocate of conservation, as has the Nashville Zoo, and you’ve done a tremendous amount of work with animals around the world. But for an individual, trying to identify the best way to help animals can be overwhelming. What advice would you offer someone who wants to help but doesn’t know where to start?

Go to the parks, everyone. You might not be able to go and see the animals in Glacier or Yellowstone. Maybe you live in neighborhoods. Maybe you'll see a rabbit or a squirrel and birds, but maybe you don't see many. So therefore, do me a favor. Go out and see. Like in Tennessee, go to the Smoky Mountains National Park. I encourage [individuals] to go to the parks. I encourage them especially [to go to] most of the zoos in this country. Accredited zoos. That's where people are putting their money. ... I'm just trying to explain to people: these are zoological parks, and whether you're a believer or not, these are the arks of the world, everybody. Nothing's mistreated in these places, nothing. … Go to your local zoological park or aquarium. Because people might not have the money to go to Africa or India or go dive in the oceans like I do with the sharks and the whales or go to the North Pole to see the polar bears or go to the South Pole to see the penguins. You can't run around and see everything.

I know you’ve traveled all over the world. Is there anywhere you’d still like to go?

There's one place I want to go, and that's Madagascar. You can imagine, I've been all over Africa, every country almost, for many years. I have a home in Africa, in Rwanda. I would say the only place I haven't been in the world is Madagascar, off the coast of East Africa. People think Madagascar is in Africa, [but] it's off the coast of East Africa, out there in the ocean. And it's got some neat creatures out there. I worked with a lot of creatures that live out there, in the zoos, but I definitely want to go there. And other than that, I think I've covered everything.

You probably get asked this a lot, but what is your craziest or scariest animal encounter?

My wife, when she's not happy. (laughs) No, you ask me my favorite animal — my wife. She's a mammal. (laughs) The only time my wife ever said "no" to me in 50 years of marriage: I tried to get her to breastfeed a chimpanzee once, a baby that wasn't eating. Well, it was a stupid thing to ask, but I brought the thing home. I had to bring two of them home. The mother was not feeding them, [and] they were losing weight. So I'm sitting there trying to bottle-feed this chimpanzee, and [my wife’s] sitting right over there breastfeeding [our daughter] Suzanne, and I'm bottle-feeding this chimpanzee. And I can't get the bottle to go in this one. I go like this (raises eyebrows), and [she said], "No way, Jack" — before I even asked her, for God's sake! But that's the only time she ever said "no" about my animals.

Have you been bitten or attacked by an animal before?

Well, 95 percent of the time, if an animal bites you, it's your fault. Now some of you may disagree with me. That's fine. I'm saying what I have seen in my whole 40-something years of doing this; I see injuries [because of] something that person has done — didn't mean to, but then you're gonna pay the price. For example, I had a beaver get a hold of me right here (gestures to hand) and then come up in here and tore all this out. It was my fault. This guy had this beaver, [and] he had to move it. He saved it from something, and I picked it up like he told me, and it just swung around, and it went up through there. I guess I didn't pick it up right. The beaver, of all the animals of the world! I almost had an elephant take me out in Albany, Georgia, back in 1972. I was working for Jim Fowler, who was the co-host of Marlin Perkins’ Wild Kingdom. I helped take care of the animals. He had a little elephant — not little, not full grown — it got me against the wall, and I thought I broke the ribs. That was my fault again. So, yes, I've had times that I've been bitten. But every single time I've done something, some way or another, it was my fault. I don't try and push animals. I don't try and push them.

Everybody thinks the life of Jack Hanna is incredible — he does TV, he has animals, and oh, wow, he's never had anything happen. It's in my book, the hardest thing I ever had to do. Sue and I had lions and tigers that were from other zoos that we were helping — the Knoxville Zoo and other zoos — on our farms. Beautiful habitats, by the way, not open to the public. Sue went shopping. I was at my dad's farm 2 miles away, [and] the highway patrol called over there, "Mr. Hanna, you have to go right now. A young boy just lost his arm to your lion. We're gonna have to take it out. We'll wait right here. He hasn't eaten the arm; he's sitting."

I don't know how [it happened]. I had kids that age too, right? So I had fencing like a zoo. I never asked the question because I never talked to the parents since. The lion grabbed his arm right here (gestures to top of arm). Daisy, my female, jerked it like this and ripped it off his shoulder. He was wrapped in a sheet, blood everywhere. [The mother] was on the ground; she fainted. I went there, like, "Daisy, sit." Daisy wasn't even eating the arm. I went in there [and] picked it up. Back then in 1972, obviously they couldn't do what they could do today. I went in my room, locked myself in there. I said, "Dad, get rid of all the animals, every one of them." My whole life was for the animals. Two days later, they were all gone to the Knoxville Zoo and another zoo. I locked myself in the room for three days without eating. I said, "Look what I've done to a child." And then, finally, a man came up to me that was a dear friend of my dad's — he's like my father too — [and said], "Jack, you've got to stop this. This is your life. … Time will go on for you." That's something I live with today, yes. Was it my fault? I guess you could say, "yes." But I live with that. ...

Sue and I left Knoxville because people in the stores would say, "That's the guy — that's his wife — that took the boy's arm." I finally said, “Sue, we're leaving.” My parents couldn't believe it. I packed up, went and cleaned cages in Georgia, had a little zoo in Florida. Then from that little zoo, I went back to Knoxville, and from that zoo, I left [because my daughter Julie] had terrible cancer. Twelve kids on her [hospital] floor — 10 passed, two survived. At the Columbus Zoo in Ohio, they were looking for a zoo director. St. Jude told me to go to Columbus because they couldn't do anymore. How blessed was I to go to Columbus and be part of one of the largest zoos in North America — in the world, probably.

My dream is not the TV. My dream is being involved with one of the finest zoos in the world. I will go to my grave saying that. You see what took me down there, the terrible thing? A lion. Didn't it? What took me back to Columbus for the zoo? My daughter [battling with] leukemia. I've learned in life, things will happen to you. It's hard to even talk about it, but it's amazing what's happened.