BIG CYPRESS — The Billie Swamp Safari was a little more wild than usual April 5 as wildlife advocate Jack Hanna visited the Safari to film an upcoming episode of “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild.”
Hanna, accompanied by his wife, Suzi, daughters Kathaleen Hanna Stephenson and Julie Hanna, and grandchildren Jack and Gabriella Stephenson, spent the day getting a full Everglades experience.
Beginning in the morning, the family rode airboats, used swamp buggies to search for animals, witnessed and took part in a private gator demonstration with Billy Walker, and enjoyed a meal at the Swamp Water Café, which Jack Hanna said was one of his favorite parts of the experience.
“I’ll tell people from a hundred-mile radius about this place to come here and eat your dinner. You don’t need a five-star restaurant. I eat out all the time; I love food,” he said, adding that he enjoyed chicken and dumplings, a meal that is hard to impress him by since he’s from Tennessee. “I would drive three or four hours to eat here.”
The dumplings were impressive to the Hanna family, but not as impressive as Jack Hanna and his grandson “Little Jack” taking part in the gator demonstration. Surrounded by the film crew and family, the Jack’s got up close and personal with a 60-year-old gator. Walker explained the significant role gators play in Seminole life and history, offering one simple piece of advice to people who may come across one in the wild, “Leave it alone.”
The demonstration wasn’t all talk, as Little Jack got to sit on top of the gator. To his delight, there was no official gator wrestling involved in that moment, but he made sure to look directly to viewers through the camera and tell them ‘not to try this at home.’
As much as they both loved the gators, Jack Hanna said that he can’t pick a favorite animal, either from above ground or underwater.
“As you travel the world, everything becomes special to you,” he said.
This wasn’t Jack Hanna’s first time at Billie Swamp. He visited the Big Cypress reservation nearly 15 years ago and said he has always been impressed and in awe of how the Seminoles live with the Everglades versus on top of it.
“After traveling the world and seeing what happens in certain parts of the world, this is one part of the country that changes very little. … You don’t see a million skyscrapers,” he said. “You look out here and you see what was here thousands of years ago in certain ways. The wildlife here is the natural wildlife that’s lived here and the people here are the people who came here a long time ago.”
The Seminoles hold a special place in Jack Hanna’s heart, as he said that even after frequenting multiple other Native American reservations, including the Cherokee in Tennessee and the Shoshone and Blackfoot in Montana, there is something special about the Seminole Tribe of Florida.
“The people are incredible,” he said. “They love their country and they love everything about this place. It’s why I came back.”
Prior to visiting Big Cypress, Jack Hanna also filmed episodes of “Into the Wild” at the non-profit animal sanctuaries Save the Chimps in Fort Pierce and Loggerhead Marinelife Center in Jupiter. Save the Chimps provides a lifelong sanctuary for chimpanzees rescued from research labs, the entertainment industry and pet trade, while Loggerhead Marinelife Center is a marine sanctuary that offers multiple exhibits and educational opportunities for the community.
These places, among a few other sites among Florida, are part of a typical schedule for the Hanna family. Suzi and Jack Hanna’s youngest daughter Julie said that she has been helping take care of animals since she was at least 3 years old and still does so to this day at the Columbus Zoo in Ohio.
“My dad used to bring home baby animals. One that just really touched my heart was a baby white tiger that needed some care,” Julie said, adding that the tiger, who Suzi named Taj after the Taj Mahal in India, had problems with the development of its legs.
“We raised her pretty much in my parents’ bathroom. Underneath the sinks they cleared it out and that pretty much became [Taj’s] den. She could go in and out and just walk around the bathroom,” she said, adding that the family grew up raising other exotic animals, such as wallabies, and less exotic, but equally lovable animals, such as mallard ducks, and dogs.
“We became known as the animal house,” Julie Hanna said. “People would ring the doorbell, and sometimes nobody would be there but you would see this box of whatever animal they decided to leave at our house.”
Although it wasn’t a typical childhood and instead was one filled with zoos, traveling and TV shows, Julie Hanna said that this is a life that she, nor the rest of her family, would trade.
“I treasure those moments that we had as a family, as well as caring for the precious wildlife that occasionally needs some additional love when Mother Nature isn’t quite all there for them,” she said. “I treasure those times and to this day, I work at the zoo and the babies [animals] are one of the biggest loves of my life.”
Jack Hanna and his family’s day in Big Cypress will be on the Billie Swamp Safari episode of “Into the Wild,” schedule to air this fall. The show is available on Hulu and can be found through local TV listings.