We Head to Columbus With Nat Geo WILD to Learn the ‘Secrets of the Zoo’! (PHOTOS)

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Safe Kids Day - Arrivals
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

What happens when Jack Hanna takes zoo animals to one of his late-night TV appearances? The critters spend the night in a hotel, too, and room service gets a big surprise. Jack’s team shares their breakfast with the animals and always leaves a big tip!

Rudy and Sunny
Lori Acken

Zoo detractor’s take heart: The only people who want wild animals — and this part is key — that can survive and thrive on their own returned to their natural habitat more than you do are the folks of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Keepers take pride in giving residents who must remain there, like rescued Ringling Brothers Circus elephant sisters Rudy and Sunny, the most natural habitats possible.

Nat Geo WILD

Dr. Bapodra and the zoo’s other veterinarians and keepers use positive-reinforcement training to teach even their largest and most dangerous residents to present the proper areas of their bodies for crucial examinations, blood tests and vaccinations, avoiding the need to anesthetize and traumatize the creatures.

CT scan 2
Lori Acken

Because tigers have tooth troubles and gorillas get gut aches, the zoo boasts a state-of-the-art veterinary facility equipped to care for any size species and medical emergency. Among its features: examination and operating tables that collapse flat on the floor so immense animals don’t need to be lifted, plus the only giraffe blood bank in America and the first animal-exclusive CT scanner in a zoo environment. It looks like the ones docs use on humans … because it is.

flamingo chicks
Lori Acken

Raising flamingos is precarious business. In keeping with the zoo’s “next best to nature” philosophy, the birds live in an open-air enclosure that can be easily infiltrated by hawks and other aerial predators. For that reason, keepers take eggs from the enclosure’s nest mounds and raise them indoors, fooling Mom and Dad with fake eggs until their babies can fend for themselves.


Stubby the manatee (right) came to the Columbus Zoo in 2005 after an encounter with a boat severely damaged her flipper. Unable to return to the wild, Stubby makes the most of her life and her adopted home by serving as a stellar surrogate mom to other manatees who come to the zoo for rehabilitation and live in an enclosure designed to replicate the Florida wilds.

cheetah cub
Lori Acken

The Zoo’s cheetah experts discovered that the ideal companions for wary little cheetah cubs are good ol’ Labrador Retrievers.

Lori Acken

There are hundreds of species of eucalyptus, but every koala is a fussy eater who will only eat a handful of varieties, loving one in the fall and rejecting it in spring. The Columbus Zoo grows their own to supplement shipments, to best accommodate the choosy marsupials

cheetah bonds 1
Nat Geo WILD

Cheetah Emmett and his canine bestie Cullen have been raised as brothers, but the zoo also creates surprising and touching bonds between animals and their human caretakers.

tiger tug of war
Lori Acken

Tiger handlers discovered that the cats enjoy a good game of tug-of-war. Lucky visitors can (safely) try their hand at besting the beasts, who sometimes team up for the win.

Brown bear
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How do you get a massive brown bear to race inside in emergencies like bad weather? A crate of tasty fish? Nope. A bowl of canned cherry pie filling! Polars prefer … orange sherbet.

Polar bear ice chunks
National Geographic/Rebecca Nelson

How do you teach a polar bear to hunt within the confines of a zoo? Zookeepers make ice blocks filled with polar pleasers like marshmallows, fish and pasta and hide them in the bears’ habitat for the animals to find.


The polar keepers’ favorite fun fact about the animals? Babies throw fits just like human toddlers when they are tired and hungry, flinging themselves to the ground and wailing.

Surfin safari
Lori Acken

The zoo shelters nearly 100 homeless cats and dogs, training and socializing them to be good pets and adopting them out to visitors. Some perform in an adorable “Surfin’ Safari” show, while others serve as companion animals to other creatures at the zoo.

Hannah Wagle

One cuddle with soft and snuggly Trout and you’ll stop thinking penguins are the Zoo’s smelliest residents.

Lori Acken

The Wilds, a few hours from the Columbus Zoo in Cumberland, Ohio, is built on the site of a former coal mine that operated from the 1940s to the 1980s, decimating the land and wildlife. Jack Hanna was one of the conservationists who saw the potential for a dream project, which took shape as an ideal habitat for rescued and repopulated species.

rhino visit
Lori Acken

The Wilds’ Open-Air Safari is an animal lover’s dream, giving you close encounters of the wildest kind.

kate and sonia
Lori Acken

Really close encounters.

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Really, really close.

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No kiddie camel rides for this handsome resident of The Wilds.

Lori Acken

According to Dan Beetam, Director of Animal Management at The Wilds, ostrich eyeballs weigh more than their brains. “They’re only as smart as they need to be,” Beetam laughs. Which doesn’t mean they can’t be scary when they want to be.

Lori Acken

Keepers describe the endangered Takin as the park’s toughest residents. “They avoid trouble, but when it finds them, it doesn’t last long. And they win,” laughs Beetam.

painted dogs 2
Lori Acken

The Wilds is also home to a pack of beautiful African wild dogs, also known as African painted dogs for their stunningly patterned coats.

Lori Acken

Giraffe Tafari — Tuffy for short — is a Wilds favorite, getting up close and personal with visitors he thinks might have tasty lettuce to feed him …

Lori Acken

… by whatever means they choose.

giraffe baby
Lori Acken

It’s a boy! The Wilds welcomed a sturdy little male Masai giraffe calf on July 10!

rhino herd
Lori Acken

In the fall of 2017, The Wilds also welcomed two rare white rhinoceros calves, a species that was brought back from the brink of extinction at the turn of the 20th century.

zipline towers
Lori Acken

Visitors to The Wilds can enjoy a unique vantage point to the animals and their breathtaking home via a multi-tower zipline tour that spans a good portion of the park. Visitors can also ….

Nat Geo WILD

… spend the night in fabric-walled yurts that range from cozy to deluxe, drifting off to the sounds of a herd of extremely rare Pére David’s deer that enjoy the watering hole below.

Lori Acken
pere david deer

Named for Armand David, a French missionary working in China who first recorded their existence in 1866, Pére David’s deer are both near-prehistoric and extremely rare in the wild. During rut, males like this handsome fellow decorate their antlers with mud and grass to attract the ladies’ attention.

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Ohio’s renowned Columbus Zoo and Aquarium boasts 10,000 animals living on 12,000 pristine acres, including its breathtaking conservation park, The Wilds. The 10,000-acre Wilds is home to rare, endangered and indigenous species, plus an intensive animal conservation effort that contributes more than $4 million in privately raised funds to support an average of 70 projects in 30 countries every year.

Another wondrous creature lives there, too.

Jack Hanna, America’s most beloved wildlife guru and the Columbus Zoo’s director emeritus, calls a 168-year-old farmhouse on the zoo’s grounds his part-time home. And now Nat Geo WILD is letting you live in Hanna’s world via its new six-part series, Secrets of the Zoo, which premieres July 29.

Secrets takes viewers on an insider excursion at the zoo to meet both the animals and the army of people who work around the clock, seven days a week, brushing rhinos’ teeth, giving swimming lessons to little polar bears, returning creatures to their natural habitats and creating an enriching experience for the animals and the zoo’s millions of annual visitors.

Sure to leave you with a new appreciation for the people who devote their lives to giving animals in captivity a wild a life as possible (and make you want to book your trip to Columbus NOW), Secrets of the Zoo combines fascinating information and insight with breathtaking visuals and a healthy dose of humor that make it as irresistible as the human’s critter costars.

Here’s a preview of some of those critters in a scene from Secrets of the Zoo in which a mama tiger tries to wrangle some unruly cubs:

To further whet your appetite for adventure — and the show — we took an insider’s tour of the zoo and The Wilds to let you in on a few of those secrets early, courtesy of veterinarian Priya Bapodra; vice president of community relations Patty Peters; director of communications Jennifer Fields; director of animal programs Suzi Rapp; The Wilds’ vice president of operations Dr. Jan Ramer; The Wilds’ director of animal management Dan Beetam; and animal keepers Zack Canter, Adam Felts, Cody Alfred and Curt Coleman, all of whom appear throughout the series.

Click through the gallery above for a wild preview of the series.

Secrets of the Zoo, Premieres Sunday, July 29, 9/8c, Nat Geo WILD