The Passionate Eye

What happens to big cats after their TV appearances? Uncovering the secret world of celebrity animal experts

New documentary exposes ‘ambassador animals’ we see on TV as no more than endangered species bred for exploitation.

New documentary exposes ‘ambassador animals’ on TV as no more than endangered species bred for exploitation

‘The Conservation Game’ follows one man’s investigation into TV conservationists and their connections to the exotic animal trade. (NightFly Entertainment, Ltd.)

When Tim Harrison was growing up, he loved watching animals on TV. He especially loved to watch exotic animals on late-night talk shows, appearing live in front of studio audiences. 

"Someday, I wanna be like Jack Hanna … That was my dream," he says. But as he grew older, Harrison noticed a problem with the animal experts he idolized. After those lions, tigers and jaguars had their moments in the spotlight, they would disappear. 

In The Conservation Game, a documentary presented by The Passionate Eye, Harrison, who's a retired police officer and director of the non-profit Outreach for Animals, goes on a mission to find out what's happened to some of the entertainment industry's favourite cats. And he's shocked when he makes a bombshell discovery: some of North America's top celebrity conservationists, like Hanna, Jarod Miller, Boone Smith and Dave Salmoni, may be secretly connected to the exotic pet trade. 

Where do the cats go? / Watching two worlds collide

For a long time, many late-night talk shows had their own "animal guy" — a conservationist who would bring exotic animals onto the studio stage for light-hearted entertainment. These "ambassador animals," which often represented endangered species, were said to be there to educate the audience. Late-night hosts would regularly ask where the animals lived, where their parents lived or where they'd go after their TV appearances, and the conservationists might reference "a sanctuary there in Pennsylvania" or "a nice little zoo somewhere."

"All of a sudden, I get a call from a local police department," says Harrison in the documentary, "somebody [has] a tiger in their basement." Exotic and dangerous animals were turning up in people's homes and backyards, he recalls. "I asked them, 'Why did you bring this tiger into your home?' 'I watched it on Animal Planet.'"

Harrison began to wonder if there was a link between the celebrity conservationists and the exotic animals in people's homes.

"You had the celebrity conservationists, they come on TV and they've got their endangered species, their ambassador animals," says Harrison. "And, on the other hand, you had a seedy underbelly. We had backyard breeders, we had the roadside zoos. The absolute worst were these exotic animal auctions."

Uncovering the truth about celebrity conservationists

In The Conservation Game, Harrison visits an exotic animal auction in Ohio, equipped with a hidden camera. "You walk through this big mass crowd of people, and all [of a] sudden, you see carts filled with these cages: big cats, bear cubs, primates," recalls Harrison in the documentary. "A regular person can just buy themselves an endangered species and walk out of there without any paperwork whatsoever."

A shocking discovery at an exotic animal auction | The Conservation Game

2 months ago
Duration 3:03
Tim Harrison takes an undercover camera into an exotic animal auction, where he connects the dots between backyard breeders and the celebrity "conservationists" on TV with their "ambassador animals."

When the owner of an Ohio roadside zoo approached Harrison, the connection between the exotic animal trade and those TV conservationists became clear. 

Harrison asked why she was there, and she said, "Well, I'm selling the animals that Jack Hanna had on TV last month," recalls Harrison's associate Rus Muntz. "And I'm going to pick up some other animals because he has another late-night show that he's going to be doing," Harrison remembers her saying. 

Miller, a regular on Animal Planet and the late-night and morning show circuit, was also at that auction.

"I realized this isn't an anomaly, this is systemic," says Harrison. "What are they doing with our ambassador animals? Where do they go? What happens to them?"

Tim Harrison connects the dots between celebrity animal experts and roadside zoos and backyard breeders of endangered species. (NightFly Entertainment, Ltd.)

Tracking down the 'ambassador cats'

When celebrity animal experts bring a big cat or other exotic animal on TV, they often say they're associated with an accredited zoo or animal sanctuary. 

But Harrison notes in the documentary that, despite having connections with almost all the zoos accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), he's never seen a single ambassador cat show up at one of the accredited facilities. 

In the documentary, Harrison approaches each of the big cat handlers from TV — Hanna, Miller, Salmoni and Smith — to ask where their cats go after their TV appearances. None offer a straight answer. That's when Harrison takes matters into his own hands. 

One name that keeps coming up in his investigation as a source for these cats is an animal supplier from Pennsylvania, Grant Kemmerer. In many of the late-night appearances, Harrison says, Kemmerer is "seen behind the scenes a lot on TV, handling the animals, taking them off stage, even wearing a Columbus Zoo uniform." Harrison locates a farm where he believes Kemmerer houses many of the animals he hires out to the TV conservationists. 

"That's the worst place these animals could end up" | The Conservation Game

2 months ago
Duration 1:22
Investigators locate a farm in Pennsylvania where animals are kept and bred for appearances on TV with celebrity 'conservationists.'

With the help of animal welfare advocate and researcher Jeff Kremer, Harrison tracks down two ambassador cats that appeared with Salmoni years ago, when they were just cubs. Now, they're at a roadside zoo in Pennsylvania, living in 15-by-10-foot cages. 

"This cat didn't end up going to an accredited and professional facility," says Harrison. "This animal ended up in a petting zoo." 

"This animal ended up in a petting zoo." | The Conservation Game

2 months ago
Duration 2:03
Tim Harrison and a colleague track down two big cats that appeared with Canadian celebrity "conservationist" David Salmoni on a number of TV shows.

Wild animals have not returned to the live studio lineup

As live audiences return to TV studios, live animals appear to have quietly been left off the lineups.

In July 2022, the U.S. Congress passed the Big Cat Public Safety Act, a bill Harrison advocates for in the documentary. The bill prohibits the ownership of tigers, lions and other big cats as pets, and outlaws direct public contact with the animals. 

For the celebrity conservationists, their appearances on television, where hosts and other guests are allowed to handle big cats, would essentially be prohibited if the bill becomes law. 

In 2021, New York authorities denied animal supplier Kemmerer a license to exhibit animals until 2023.

Before Hanna's retirement in 2021, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, where he served as director and ambassador for 42 years, took opposition to the Big Cat Public Safety Act. But when Hanna's links to the exotic animal trade were exposed in The Conservation Game, the zoo lost its AZA accreditation. Hanna stepped back from his duties and his family announced he had dementia and would be retiring from public life. The zoo lost its appeal to the AZA, but has since earned accreditation from another body, the Zoological Association of America. Today, the Columbus Zoo supports the bill.  

Under the Big Cat Public Safety Act, current private owners are allowed to keep their animals, but they're required to register them to ensure their location and any transfers are known. That way, first responders or animal control officers are aware of their whereabouts. 

"Right now, we have the opportunity to stop this madness," says Harrison in the documentary. "And it's the greatest feeling in the world."

Watch The Conservation Game on The Passionate Eye.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Graham is a producer, writer and science enthusiast with CBC Docs in Toronto.

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