By Richard Ades
One of my hometown’s most beloved celebrities—former Columbus Zoo director “Jungle Jack” Hanna—fares poorly in the documentary The Conservation Game. His reputation takes such a hit that one is tempted to feel sorry for him—except for the fact that many animals that supported his rise to fame allegedly fared much worse.
Produced and directed by Michael Webber, the muckraking film follows animal activist Tim Harrison around the country as he tries to track down the tigers and other big cats that often appeared on television in their younger years. Hanna and similar wildlife experts became familiar sights on talk shows by bringing out a variety of these adorable cubs, many of which represented endangered species.
Where were these animals from? When asked, the experts might hint that they were from an accredited zoo or refuge. But the truth, Harrison finds, is far murkier. By asking questions and following leads, he learns that many of them hailed from privately owned facilities, such as the squalid farm he discovers in rural Pennsylvania.
And what happened to the animals after their five minutes of TV fame? That’s the real tragedy. All too many have disappeared from view and are presumed dead, while Harrison finds others are forced to work for their living by appearing at functions such birthday parties or, in one case, being dragged onto a football field as a prominent high school team’s mascot.
None are treated in a way that’s appropriate for wild animals, especially animals whose species are in danger of dying out.
Several allies help Harrison in his crusade to end such abuse. They include Carney Anne Nasser, an attorney who played a role in a wildlife-trafficking case against now-imprisoned TV reality star Joe Exotic. Nasser and others are involved in an attempt to pass a federal law, known as the Big Cat Public Safety Act, that’s designed to curtail the exploitation of exotic animals.
But it’s Harrison who generally takes center stage in the film. A towering ex-cop who’s trained in the martial arts, he makes a formidable figure as he fearlessly walks up to strangers’ homes or businesses and asks what happened to this or that big cat. In an inevitable climactic scene, he does just that to Jack Hanna, a boyhood hero who has not lived up to his reputation as a champion of endangered wildlife.
In a postscript added following the documentary’s premiere last April, it’s noted that Hanna has retired from public life following what his family describes as a diagnosis of dementia. It’s also noted that his former employer, the Columbus Zoo, subsequently announced it will support passage of the Big Cat Public Safety Act.
Rating: 4½ stars
The Conservation Game (PG-13) can be seen at select theaters, including Columbus’s Gateway Film Center (through Sept. 22) and Marcus Cinema Crossroads (Sept. 20 and 22).