One wild night in Hickory

It was a Monday night in Hickory, and the only thing separating me and a penguin was a camera.

Down on all fours and leaning on my elbows, I stuck the lens inches from the bird’s beak.

“I hope you’re getting some good pictures,” Jack Hanna said into a microphone that echoed to more than 2,000 people inside Lenoir-Rhyne University’s Shuford Gymnasium. “I have to go half-way around the world to get pictures that close.”

People brushed shoulders as laughter filled the gym.

Hanna, a world-renowned zookeeper and animal expert, was making fun of me.

I put the camera down and laughed as the two-foot-tall penguin with a black coat and white belly waddled away.

“Bring out the next animal,” Hanna said.

Hanna and his six-man crew showed the Hickory audience a plethora of interesting creatures Monday. A spotted leopard, two-toed sloth, three-banded armadillo and lynx were just some of the animals on display.

Hanna has talked and shown his animals to hundreds of crowds before, but the show at Lenoir-Rhyne was a little different from his usual gig.

The animal enthusiast has become famous for appearing on television programs like “The Tonight Show with David Letterman” and “Good Morning America,” and the trip to LR was an exception to his schedule.

A major reason for his appearance was due to his relationship with Dave Walker, a Hickory resident who went to high school with Hanna. Walker helped coordinate the event, which sold out hours before it started at 7 p.m.

Boy Scouts, church groups, moms and dads stood in lines that wrapped around the outside of Shuford Gymnasium two hours before tickets were supposed to go on sale at 6 p.m. After the bleachers inside the gym were full, Hickory police and event officials allowed extra entrants to sit on the gym floor against the walls.

“If there’s a fire marshal here, don’t worry, there are only about 30 people in here right now,” Hanna joked.

More than 50 people didn’t get into the show, and several of those not gaining admittance complained to police and event officials outside. Some even wrote on the event’s Facebook wall later that night, with comments like, “Ticket sales were a nightmare” and it was a “poorly managed event.”

Hanna performed a short presentation for the ticketless before the show and signed autographs on free photos for each attendee in line.

But while many were forced to leave the show disappointed, people inside raved for Hanna. In the gym, entrants chanted “Jack…Jack…Jack,” stomping their feet and clapping their hands as they waited to see him.

Children and adults joined in doing “the wave,” and toddlers scurried about to music from pre-recorded African drums. It was like they were waiting for a pop star 10 minutes after show time.

When Hanna finally emerged, it was to a standing ovation. The crowd’s cheers were even louder when he talked about his connection with North Carolina and his friend “Dope Walker.”

“I’m from Tennessee and spent a lot of time in my teenage years in the mountains of North Carolina,” Hanna said. “I’ve spent a lot of time in Boone, Linville and lived in Knoxville, Tenn.”

After introductions and jokes, however, the meat of Hanna’s show was about learning. He brought out four or five unique animals and between segments showed a video clip from his adventures. During each, he joked about the animals while giving facts, figures and real-life examples of why the creatures are important to our ecosystem.

He combines information that is interesting with the extraordinary abilities and features that his animals display to attract the viewer’s full attention and interest.

To close his show, Hanna brought out the largest and most potentially dangerous animal of the night – an adult cheetah.

“Now, I’m serious, we can’t have any movement when we bring this animal out,” Hanna warned the crowd before bringing out the big cat.

As the cheetah slowly glided toward a table in the middle of the gym floor, the crowd was quiet for the first time all night. They peered at the animal from across the globe and listened as Hanna talked about its “60 mph” speed and large, hook-like claws. The potential killing machine didn’t move much as it eyed 2,000 would-be preys.

After the cheetah was taken away and no one was eaten, the crowd finally clapped.

And just before saying goodbye, Hanna made a point to address animal rights groups who frown on zoos and shows that the long-time zookeeper promotes. He said 98 percent of zoo animals are born in other zoos – a statistic he said allows children to learn about animals that they would otherwise not be able to see.

“Most kids won’t have the ability to go to Africa or around the world to see some of these animals, but in zoos they can,” Hanna said.

While the show at LR may have been unique, Hanna said he is planning to visit a small amount of colleges in the future and spend more time teaching and doing shows. And after his stay in Hickory, he said, “I can guarantee you that (LR) is one of those universities.”