“The Southeastern Wildlife Expo is the number one wildlife event in the world,” says American celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna. “I should know, I’ve been to them all.”

And indeed he has. If there’s one thing the 2010 SEWE star is an expert on, it’s the wildlife trade-show circuit. In the past month he’s flown from Illinois to Wisconsin, Wisconsin to Florida, Florida to New York, and when City Paper caught up with him, he was minutes away from boarding his next flight back to the Sunshine State. He’s like George Clooney in the movie Up in the Air, only instead of a tidy carry-on, his baggage is a penguin.

“I got up at 4:30 this morning, and I have to be at another event this afternoon,” he says, sounding tired but resilient. The booming voice of the TSA system can be heard blaring behind him. “They’re going to call my flight any minute.”

Enough said. When you get the world’s preeminent wildlife expert on the phone for only 10 minutes you don’t screw around. Alright, mentally nix the “What’s your animal equivalent?” “Can I call you Jungle Jack?” and “When Roy of Siegfried & Roy got mauled did you laugh too?” questions and skip to some hardball items such as …

For those wanting to get involved in conservation, is it better to write your congressman or donate to an organization like the Audubon Society?

Hanna says, “My personal thing is to get involved in the parks.” He cites his own Columbus Zoo as a great example of an association promoting not only animal welfare, but human development as well. “It’s not just about the animals; it’s about our planet, all of us.” Hanna continues.

You also need to ask what percentage of the money is going to the animals. In his years working in conservation, Hanna’s seen many an organization put pennies on the dollar toward the actual creatures they’re working to help, while the larger chunk of the change goes into admin and operations costs. “With our projects at the Columbus Zoo, 95 to 98 cents per dollar goes to the animals. We don’t need cars or helicopters or advertising, like other organizations do.” Not to mention, he adds, “The Columbus Zoo was rated the number one zoo in the nation.” Duly noted.

Hanna talks as fast as the Micro Machine guy, his Tennessee accent bouncing off the satellites into my ear. “I think I have time for one more question,” he says, and I can hear the first boarding call boom in the background. Whew, one more question! “Uhh, What are the most significant changes you’ve seen in conservation since you first started coming to SEWE back in 2004?”

Hanna sighs and says, “Well, Baby Boomers did more damage to the planet then any other generation on Earth. But, this current generation is more aware that we only have one small planet we all live on.” Hanna does believe in global warming, but he isn’t a fan of the scare tactics used to publicize the problem. “The real issue is over-population. It’s like putting a dozen cows on a little piece of land. What happens to that land?” he asks.

It dies? I say.

“That’s right,” he says, and I assume if this interview was in person he’d add “gold star for you, little girl.” But instead he continues, “Like our planet, it’s not expanding,”

Hanna’s feelings on climate change come from his first-hand experience in Rwanda. Along with working to protect mountain gorillas, Hanna has built schools and orphanages in the recovering nation. “I always turn off the water when I’m brushing my teeth because in Rwanda I see ladies with six-pound gourds on top of their heads travel miles to retrieve water. That’s a good reminder of the limits of natural resources.”

Always willing to help a reporter, when I ask him why he keeps returning to Charleston year after year — this will be his fifth time — Hanna keeps talking as he gets in line to board the plane. “SEWE is a very well organized event,” he says. “It separates itself from other wildlife expos because it’s for the family. There’s something for everyone.”

For Hanna the something he likes the best is the artwork. “I’ve seen just about every wildlife sculpture there is, but every time I come to SEWE, I have to keep myself from buying another piece. The art is unbelievable.”

This year Hanna will be joined by his wife Suzi, who will be giving a celebrity book reading. For Hanna’s presentation, expect to see the unexpected. This year’s animal sidekicks may include a sloth, a penguin, birds of prey, some reptiles, and a palm civet, which is a member of the mongoose family.

As an added bonus, Hanna and Suzi will be the special guests at a new VIP gala, An Evening with Jack Hanna at the S.C. Aquarium. Guests will get to mix and mingle with the star, enjoy an open bar and hors d’oeuvres. Tickets are $85.

“Well that’s me, I’ve got to go now,” Hanna says, entering the plane. “Looking forward to being in Charleston.”

“Looking forward to having you here,” I tell him. Then just before he hangs up, I add, “‘Til then, Jungle Jack.”

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