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Hanna and the cheetah

I almost expected to see David Letterman walk in next. There I was, petting a seven-month-old cheetah when in walked Jack Hanna.

“There are only a couple of zoos where you can get this close to a cheetah,” said Hanna, who has gained a worldwide following with his advocacy for wild animals on his own television shows and by regular late-night appearances on the “Late Show with David Letterman” and other national television shows with a fascinating retinue of animals in tow. I was at the Columbus Zoo, where Hanna is the director emeritus, on the first stop of a four-day press trip to the Ohio city to sample some of the many creative experiential opportunities the local CVB has developed for groups. The CVB is so dedicated to making group trips hands-on it has changed its name to Experience Columbus.

The trip got off with a bang at the zoo, where we got to pet Moyo, a runt of the litter who had been abandoned by his mother at the Wilds, the wild animal sanctuary in southeastern Ohio that the Columbus Zoo helps operate. Moyo will probably spend his life at the zoo as an educational cheetah, although this was one of the last chances people will have to touch him. We met Moyo and Hanna at the Polar Frontier area, the zoo’s newest addition, which opened last spring.Hanna exhibited his famous infectious energy as he told about his more than 30 years at the zoo helping build it into a world-respected facility, his efforts to preserve animals in the wild and his philosophy for the zoo’s operation.

“It’s just as much for people as for the animals,” he said. “People have fun here and go away loving the animal world.” Hanna helped rescue the zoo, which was on the verge of being closed when he arrived in 1978, jumping in to help paint and clean the buildings. He gradually built public support, and today the zoo, the third largest in North America, is considered one of the best in the world. “The zoo is my life,” he said. “I come in here at night and walk around. It is beyond a dream. It was a dream I got to live.”