Michigan pet shop owner Don Hunt, who turned a business promotion into a nationally syndicated TV show, left a lasting conservation legacy.
If you were a kid growing up in the early 1960s, a lot of what you knew about exotic animals may have come from a Ferndale pet shop owner who landed enough Detroit television guest spots with his animal friends that he parlayed the business promotion into the nationally syndicated children’s program “B’Wana Don in Jungle-La.”
“B’Wana Don” Hunt — as he was known among legions of fans who watched him and his scene-stealing pet chimpanzee Bongo Bailey — died recently in Africa, his family said.
Hunt, a native of Ferndale, was 84.
Hunt’s brother, Pat, told the Detroit Free Press that Hunt "always said that Bongo was the star, and he was the co-star.”
Hunt’s friendly demeanor and genuine love for animals made the show a hit with viewers, who learned about wildlife conservation and ethics along the way.
“Don Hunt’s love of animals was very apparent on the small screen. From his African trading post set in 'Jungle-La' he taught a generation of young Detroiters about exotic animals,” Ed Golick, creator of www.detroitkidshow.com, told the Free Press “I still remember a few phrases in Swahili thanks to B’wana Don. And what kid didn’t love his unpredictable chimpanzee pal Bongo Bailey?”
Hunt once said he couldn’t have predicted the the wealth the show’s meteoric rise in popularity would bring to him.
“When I went from $75 a week from my pet shop, and then, when I went to $5,000 a week because they were doing syndication, I just couldn’t believe there was that much money anyplace in the world — and why they would pay it to a pet shop kid like me…” he said in an interview for a Detroit Public Television documentary.
Conservation with Actor William Holden
Hunt was more than an entertainer with a winning personality and charming chimp, though.
In 1967, the show sent Hunt to Kenya to film what would become its final 130 episodes. Hunt fell in love with both the country and a German-born art and Africa enthusiast, Iris, who would become his longtime wife. He never lived in Michigan full-time again, though he regularly returned to the house he built on Lake Burt.
After leaving the show, Hunt earned the respect of international wildlife conservation organizations after teaming with his friend, actor William Holden, on a wildlife rehabilitation and reintroduction project.
At the 1,000-acre Mount Kenya Game Ranch and 1,200-acre Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy near Nairobi, the successful methods Hunt developed to rehabilitate and return animals to the wild are used in conservation efforts benefitting a variety of species, including the quickly disappearing Mountain Bongo Antelope.
The preserve and conservancy are recognized and significant links in the global network of conservation organizations. More than 1,500 animals have been returned to the wild as a result of Hunt's work, according to his biography on the Ferndale Historical Society page.
The entrepreneurial St. James High School graduate bought his first pet store in Ferndale with a partner while studying at the University of Detroit and eventually opened two more. The pet stores were Hunt's ticket to the entertainment industry, but it was through his wildlife-themed businesses that he made his fortune.
In 1967, he started the International Animal Exchange to help zoos, aquariums and adventure parks obtain animals for their exhibits. At the time, the IAE was supplying 75 percent of animals added to zoo collections, and it is still in business in Royal Oak.
Hunt made a lot of money supplying animals. The Wall Street Journal has reported the animal-acquisition business raked in $6 million in 1970, or $36 million in today’s dollars.
In 1968, he founded an international travel agency that offered guided “zoofaris” in East Africa. He made $325,000 the first year, according to the Ferndale Historical Society bio.
Other business efforts included safari theme parks he and his brother created across the United States, including a walking pet zoo, Bob-Lo Island, and the still-in-operationAfrican Safari and Wildlife Park.
Hunt, who had lived in Africa for almost half a century, is survived by four brothers, Tom, Brian, Michael and Pat; a sister, Diane; two children, Kevin and Kimberly; and two grandchildren, Ryan and Alex.
Pat Hunt told the Free Press the best way to remember his brother is to “be nice to animals.”
“That’s what he would have wanted," he said.
And as word of Hunt’s death spreads, a generation of kids who grew up watching “B’Wana Don in Jungle-La” may be recalling with moist eyes his closing reminder on every show:
“Be good, boys and girls. I’ll see you tomorrow morning. Don’t forget your prayers. Bye now.”
Image and video credit: YouTube