Conservation Game documentary ties Columbus Zoo, Jack Hanna to unchecked big cat trade
The baby tigers and snow leopards that sat in Jack Hanna's lap on late-night talk shows often didn't come from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and didn't end up there when the cameras stopped rolling, a new documentary alleges.
Instead, "The Conservation Game" film says, they were shuffled among backyard breeders and unaccredited roadside zoos, facilities described as "prisons" for animals.
The filmmakers say longtime Columbus Zoo director Hanna and other celebrity animal conservationists actively misrepresented where the exotic cats came from and where they were going, insinuating they were moving between accredited facilities that adhere to strict animal care standards and ethics policies.
The film also suggests Hanna and Columbus Zoo officials stonewalled attempts to pass federal big cat regulations, while other Ohio zoos and animal advocates expressed support for the proposed law.
Officials with the Columbus Zoo addressed the documentary in July, announcing they had cut ties with animal vendors who do not follow certain animal-care standards.
The filmmakers gave The Dispatch access to view the film this week. Screenings are scheduled for some states later this month and an Ohio premiere is planned for the Gateway Film Center in Columbus on Sept. 10. Showings will occur through Sept. 16.
'The Conservation Game,' Jack Hanna and allegations around unaccredited animal facilities
The documentary, which includes footage from as far back as 2010 and as recently as 2018, follows animal advocate and former Ohio police officer Tim Harrison and a team of others as they search for what became of the exotic cats that once sat in the laps of celebrity conservationists — including Hanna — on morning and late-night shows on national television.
In many cases, the conservationists acquired these young animals from unregulated, unaccredited “roadside zoos” or “backyard breeders,” not true animal sanctuaries or accredited zoos, the documentary shows. After the television appearances, the animals often went back to the same kinds of facilities, or couldn’t be traced at all.
Unlike animal sanctuaries and accredited zoos, those facilities don't serve a legitimate animal conservation purpose, said Carney Anne Nasser, an animal protection attorney featured in the documentary. Such facilities "will absorb animals from anyone" and are engaged in for-profit activities with animals, she said.
"What that means is those people will use those cats for pay-to-play interactions," film director Michael Webber told The Dispatch. "They will take them and use them as high school mascots, they will take them for cub petting activities, and basically exploit these animals to make a buck for as long as they can."
Those facilities often offload an animal when it gets older and there is no longer financial incentive to keep it, Webber said, and the animals often become difficult to track down.
"When you have animals that are listed in the film that we can't find, and they won't tell you where they are, there's any number of explanations for it," Webber said. "And one of those explanations is that it was killed."
In one case portrayed in the film, Hanna appears on an ABC program with two snow leopards who he said were 8 weeks old. But records showed those cubs were only 5 weeks old, which violates industry standards for public contact with cubs, animal protection attorney Carney Anne Nasser explains in the film.
The two snow leopards went on to die by age 2, the film alleges.
In another case, the film shows a Good Morning America clip, where Hanna appears with a tiger that he suggests is part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums' (AZA) Species Survival Plan, which calls for strict tracking of an animal's location and breeding history.
Footage later surfaced of the same tiger, caged in a hotel lobby for a biker convention, the film shows.
The team then used the tiger's black stripes — which are unique to every tiger, like a human fingerprint — to show the same tiger was later back in the possession of Pennsylvania zoo operator Grant Kemmerer, whose facility is not AZA-accredited.
In the film, Harrison eventually confronts Hanna after a public speaking engagement and asks about what became of the cats. Hanna then implied that the animals go to The Wilds, the film portrays, but The Wilds does not have facilities for big cats such as leopards, tigers, or lions.
The Hanna family referred to their earlier statement from July, that they had not seen the documentary and would never try to speak for Jack Hanna, given his recent dementia diagnosis. Hanna retired from the zoo in December of 2020.
"What we can say emphatically is that he worked his entire career to better the animal world," the family's July statement read. "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.”
The Columbus Zoo cut ties with animal vendors
In July, on the heels of new leadership and after "The Conservation Game" began screening in some cities, the Columbus Zoo announced that it had cut ties with animal vendors that do not follow certain animal care standards.
The zoo said Tuesday it had cut ties with all the facilities mentioned in the documentary except for one: Tanganyika Wildlife Park. Two older-age cheetahs from the Columbus Zoo are currently housed there, and the zoo determined it is in the animals' best interest not to be moved at this time, said zoo spokeswoman Nicolle Gomez Racey.
Suzi Rapp, former vice president of animal programs at the Columbus Zoo, wrote in support of Kemmerer's unaccredited facility in 2018, after he was cited in New York for violating wildlife laws there, the documentary shows.
In the letter, Rapp wrote that the zoo had worked with Kemmerer's facility since 2009 and included his animals on many of Hanna's national television appearances. She called the facility a "top notch institution" and said she had "never witnessed anything that would constitute careless, reckless or dangerous handling of any animal."
As of January of this year, Kemmerer is no longer permitted to exhibit animals in New York, including on television shows, until at least 2023. The state denied his most recent application for an exhibitor's license, citing his previous license violations.
Kemmerer, whose unaccredited facility in Pennsylvania is called out in the film, told The Dispatch he has not seen the documentary. From what he has heard about the film, though, he said it is full of "misinformation and downright lies." He said he could account for all the big cats that have been involved with his facility, many of which remain at his property today.
"If you're not an AZA institution, (it) doesn't mean that you don't serve a purpose," he said, noting that many people across the country don't have easy access to big, accredited zoos like in Columbus.
Rapp also rejected the idea that unaccredited zoos are bad facilities.
"There are many people who aren't part of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums that do really good work and do a lot of work for conservation and for genetic diversity," she told The Dispatch Tuesday. "It would be very critical to say if you're not an AZA zoo you're not a good zoo."
Last week, the AZA released a statement condemning the treatment of animals portrayed in the documentary and said it is now conducting a review of the practices. The practices "attributed to some Columbus Zoo staff, if accurate, are not what we expect from a modern accredited zoo," AZA president and CEO Dan Ashe said in the written statement.
The Columbus Zoo is currently in the midst of a routine, five-year review of its AZA accreditation. A decision on whether that status will be renewed is expected to come in late October, zoo officials have said.
Separate from the regular accreditation review for the Columbus Zoo, the AZA "plans to investigate both the specific allegations and the broader practices captured in the film," Ashe said.
"Part of maintaining a gold-standard accreditation program is a willingness to examine and improve our standards," he said. "We are constantly evolving and can be better."
Meanwhile, Kemmerer criticized the film for "exploiting" Hanna by invoking his name to get people to watch it.
"Jack has nothing to do with the day-to-day care of the animals at the Columbus Zoo, acquisition, or disposition," Kemmerer said.
"...Jack doesn't have a nefarious, mean bone in his body," Kemmerer said. " He is nothing but caring."
Rapp, who oversaw the zoo's outreach and educational programs involving animals offsite for years, retired last month, a decision she said was hers alone.
Rapp has not seen the documentary, but said the accusation that the big cats used by celebrity conservationists are dead or can't be found is "not the truth."
As for Hanna, Rapp called the longtime Columbus Zoo director "the greatest conservationist this world will ever know."
"He would have never done anything to hurt an animal or a person," she said.
"Tiger King's" Carole Baskin says Jack Hanna was a problem for big cat regulations
The film also explores efforts to pass the Big Cat Public Safety Act, proposed federal law that would restrict the private ownership of exotic cats and prohibit the public from interacting with them for petting, feeding and photo opportunities. The documentary features "Tiger King" stars Carole and Howard Baskin as they worked to rally support for the law on Capitol Hill.
While the four other Ohio zoos supported the law, lobbyists for the bill discovered Hanna and the Columbus Zoo were actively working to hold up the legislation and convince Ohio lawmakers and their staff not to support it, the film suggests.
"Whenever we go to these (lawmakers') offices, people are like, 'You should get Jack Hanna involved,'" Carole Baskin said in one scene. "And we're like, "'He is absolutely the biggest problem that we're facing.'"
When Harrison eventually confronts Hanna in the film, he asked Hanna and Rapp about the proposed law and their alleged efforts to squelch it.
Rapp responded, "That law shuts us down."
Rapp told The Dispatch on Tuesday that the legislation was still "pretty sloppy" a couple of years ago when "The Conservation Game" was gathering footage. At the time, the Columbus Zoo was not in favor of the bill as it was written.
The Columbus Zoo has since changed course and expressed support for the Big Cat Public Safety Act. Their public announcement came on April 23, shortly after "The Conservation Game" premiered in Santa Barbara on April 6. Hanna's family shared news of his dementia diagnosis on April 7.
Gomez Racey said Columbus Zoo officials have always been a part of the conversation around the Big Cat Public Safety Act, and the zoo initially questioned parts of the legislation that were vague.
Exotic animals in Ohio
The film's content straddles before and after the enactment of new exotic animal laws in Ohio in 2014 largely banning sales, ownership and breeding. Some of the Ohio places depicted, such as Stump Hill Farm in Massillon, are now defunct. The film also showed the Mt. Hope exotic animal auction. That auction still operates, but without exotic species.
Owners who registered the animals they had when the laws took effect — and met caging and care standards and liability insurance requirements set out in the law — are able to keep their animals as long as they live. But they can’t buy new ones or breed those they have.
The law gained support after Terry W. Thompson, who lived near Zanesville, released his menagerie of exotic creatures nearly 10 years ago, in 2011, and then killed himself on his farm. Forty-eight animals, including lions, tigers and bears, were killed by law enforcement to protect the public.
In addition to working with Hanna, the unaccredited facilities featured in the film also provided some of the live "Obie" mascot tiger cubs that appeared at Massillon Washington High School football games over the years, the film alleges.
Again using the tiger's black stripes, an investigator featured in the film identified "Obie 43" and "Obie 47" as tigers that had also appeared on TV with celebrity conservationists Boone Smith and Dave Salmoni.
The "Obie" tradition ended last year after 50 years.
It could have ended sooner, after Ohio's new exotic animal laws took effect in 2014, but a section of the Ohio Revised Code actually grandfathered the practice, exempting "an educational institution that displays a single dangerous wild animal as a sports mascot," if it began doing so before Sept. 5, 2012. The exemption includes requirements for liability insurance and that contact with the public is not allowed.