Editor’s note: This is another column in Bill Boyd’s new series, “The Way It Was,” about growing up in Marysville. Bill continues to work with the Union County Historical Society to obtain information for his stories. With Marysville and Union County celebrating Bicentennial anniversaries in 2019 and 2020, respectively, these articles help depict what life was like in those early years.
In 1978, the Columbus Zoo got a new director, a man named Jack Hanna. I think that was the best thing that ever happened to the zoo. He immediately went to work transforming the small antiquated facility into the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium we know today, one of the nation’s finest animal parks.
When Jack took over, animals lived behind bars in small cages. But he immediately started to change all that. One of his first projects was to take the guerrillas out of their cages and put them into a natural environment. He built a large open pit that could be viewed from above. There were no bars at all. The area had a pond and natural vegetation, including a tree for the gorillas to climb.
I think the original plan may have been to build all this on a concrete floor, but Jack wanted the animals to have a natural setting, so he had a beautiful Scotts lawn installed in the gorilla compound. When the project was finished, the gorillas left their tiny cages for that natural setting.
At the time, I was writing advertising and publicity materials for Scotts, and I was asked to write a few stories about the new gorilla quarters. So I picked up the phone and gave Jack Hanna a call. We talked for some time about the project, and he told me the gorillas were much happier in their new quarters. I asked him how he could tell if a gorilla is happy, and he said he would show me tomorrow morning when I could meet with him.
I told him I could be at his office whenever it was convenient for him, and he said sometime around 8 a.m. would be best. I got there a little early, and Jack met me at the zoo entrance. We went right to the guerrilla compound. The gorillas slept inside a small building at night, and Jack had one of the workers open its door as we watched.
Oh boy, those gorillas came running out the door. They were loudly pounding their chest as they ran back-and-forth in the grass. Jack smiled and said, “That’s how we can tell they are happy.”
I met with him in his office a few more times that week, and I will never forget the last of those meetings. When I got to his office, he was standing outside talking with a lady who was holding a bird of some sort. I think it may have been a penguin. When Jack saw me, he told me to go in and he would join me in a few minutes.
I went in and sat in a chair as I opened my file folder that contained the stories I had written. A couple minutes later, I decided to take the papers into a second room in Jack’s office. It had a table where I could spread them out for him to read. But when I opened that door, I got the surprise of my life.
Two scary looking wild animals came bursting through the open door. They were members of the cat family, but I had no idea what they were. I only knew that they had claws and sharp teeth, and they ate meat. They were about the size of a golden retriever, but they were much slimmer, and they moved with a frightening kind of grace. The first one grazed my leg as it ran by, and the second one ran right into me.
Oh man, I could be eaten alive. I was trapped in the room with them. There was no place to hide. So I just stepped inside the room they had just vacated and I closed the door. I don’t know how long I was in there by myself, but it seemed like an eternity.
Maybe five or ten minutes later, the door opened and Jack walked in. He told me the animals were young cheetahs. He said he had them in his office as he was working that morning.
I told him my first inclination was to run, but there was no place to run. He told me that running would have been futile as cheetahs are the fastest land animals in the world. He said they can run up to 75 miles per hour. I’m sure Jack was right about their speed, but I think he may have underestimated how fast I can run, especially when being chased by a cheetah!
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