By Gary Budzak
The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium opened its newest exhibit with the help of two of the most popular animal lovers in the world – Betty White and Jack Hanna.
White and Hanna have been friends since 1979, and he invited her to the ribbon cutting for the Zoo’s 43-acre Heart of Africa on May 22.
“I was here in 1979, and it was beautiful and it was small,” White said of the Zoo as thousands looked on, some holding signs proclaiming their love of White or their resemblance to her. “But look what it’s grown into, and it’s now one of the most important zoos all over the world. Tell your friends about this beautiful facility that you have, and don’t take it for granted. Come see this marvelous collection of animals.”
Actress White, 92, is long-time animal advocate who has hosted a television series on pets and on her current series, Hot in Cleveland, she has a Pomeranian named George Clooney. White is also a member of the board of directors for the Greater Los Angeles Zoo Association.
“Zoos do so much more in this world than they ever get credit for,” White said. “They give back so much to the wild communities. Almost any species you mention is shrinking. We’re not shrinking. There are plenty of us, but we’ve got to also take tender loving care of these incredible creatures that live on this beautiful planet.”
Hanna compared White to Mother Teresa in terms of her work with animal organizations and charities, but reconsidered. “If you’ve seen some of her movies, maybe she’s not Mother Teresa,” he said, to laughs.
“Betty sat out here by herself last night (May 21),” Hanna said. “We couldn’t get her away. She said, ‘Jack, I always wanted to take a tour of Africa. I can’t go now, but my heart is now in Africa.’ That’s all I needed to hear from this beautiful lady. Does that tell you what this is like, everyone?”
White called it a “perfect day, from end to end.”
Before the ribbon-cutting, Hanna held up a sign that said Betty White Way, which will soon be placed at the entry of Heart of Africa.
“She’s won every award, but her love is people and the animal world, because she knows what happens in the animal world happens in the people world,” Hanna said of White.
“You’re seeing something today that I waited all my life to see,” Hanna, 67, said of Heart of Africa. “We want to bring you the North Pole, South America, every continent in the world in the future. I won’t be here – hopefully, I’ll be in the continent upstairs.”
Zoo President and CEO Tom Stalf began the ceremony by holding up a 35-day old cheetah, which he called the newest addition to Heart of Africa.
“We wanted to make sure we give you an opportunity to go on a safari,” Stalf said. “We have 160 animals you’ll be able to see— cheetahs, lions, giraffes, zebras, wildebeest. The zoo has been working very hard for the opportunity to bring giraffes back, but we wanted to do it right.”
Stalf also thanked past president and CEO Jerry Borin for his vision. In 2000, Borin told the Zoo board to acquire a neighboring field that grew soybeans and corn. That transformed field now replicates an African savannah.
Rev. Stephen Norden, founding pastor of nearby New Hope Church on Powell Road, quoted the hymn “All Things Bright and Beautiful” in his prayer.
“We pray that this place would encourage, instruct and inspire all of us who come to visit to better care for Your creation,” Norden said.
Gary Budzak may be reached at 740-413-0904 or on Twitter @GaryBudzak.