Column: Dave's wild kingdom

Published May 12, 2015

With his long run set to end next week, it's hard to believe that I've been bringing animals on to David Letterman's show for 30 years now. I never could have imagined that my career would involve sitting beside sloths and snakes on a late-night TV couch.

In 1978, I was hired as the director of the Columbus Zoo. Two rare twin gorillas were born at the zoo in 1983, and my world changed. Good Morning America featured the birth, which put our zoo on the national map. Several months later, one of Letterman's bookers called my office, and I accepted without hesitation. I had watched Johnny Carson, and late-night TV seemed like fun. I thought it would be a good opportunity to educate audiences about animals.

Our first trip to New York was an eventful one: A huge snowstorm canceled our plans to drive into the city. Fortunately, a Columbus Zoo board member came to the rescue and let our 85-pound baby pygmy hippo board his private plane so we didn't miss the show.

As the hippo and I sat backstage getting ready to go on, someone asked if I was nervous that Dave would eat me alive. "Why would I be nervous?" I asked. She just looked at me and laughed.

That was the first time Dave and I met: on the air, Feb. 14, 1985. I was lucky — he took it easy on me. He was more polite than I anticipated, though I do remember him looking at me like I might be a little crazy. In all fairness, he still does that.

We never did rehearsals with Dave and I think that is one of the major reasons it worked: His genuine, unbridled reactions are priceless. One of our most chaotic appearances happened soon after our first show, when I brought a couple of full-grown camels to the city. I weighed and measured them, but I forgot to measure the height of their humps. As we walked down the hallway to the studio, their humps took out just about every ceiling panel . I never noticed that they had a camera rolling during the whole fiasco and that Dave was going to open the show with it.

In all these years, I've only had one scary incident on set: In December 1988 I was bitten by a beaver. As I got up to take the beaver offstage during the commercial break, she started to slide out of my hands. I grasped the base of her tail with my right hand, and she chomped down. But the show must go on, so I stuck my hand in a rubber glove so I could return to the stage. As we finished the segment, the glove on my hand was rapidly filling with blood.

Since it was Christmas time, there was no chance I could get a cab, so I literally ran to Roosevelt Hospital. Once there, people were horrified by the blood spattered all over my clothes. Of course, the first question was, "What happened?" I didn't want to tell them that a beaver bit me on David Letterman's show, so I improvised. "My beaver bit me in Central Park."

There are so many memorable moments from over the years: like the time two armadillos tried to mate on Dave's desk, or when a Eurasian eagle owl flew high up in the rafters on camera. Just recently Dave even allowed one of our hawks to land on his head. But for every funny moment, there were also heartwarming, endearing moments. Dave's never met a cat he didn't ooh and ahhh over.

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Dave has done more for the animal world than he realizes. He has introduced his audiences to animals they might never have even heard of. He probably knows more than I do about animals by now. From Dave's kookaburra noises to the retrospective montage to the hyena drinking water out of his mug, our final show together last month was perfect.

Jack Hanna is the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and the host of Jack Hanna's Wild Countdown and Jack Hanna's Into the Wild. © 2015 Slate