Ferndale council honors ‘B’Wana’ Don Hunt

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published June 21, 2016

 Hunt hosted “B’Wana Don in Jungle-La” from 1960 to 1963 with his chimp, Bongo Bailey.

Hunt hosted “B’Wana Don in Jungle-La” from 1960 to 1963 with his chimp, Bongo Bailey.

Photo provided by the Ferndale Historical Society

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FERNDALE — The Ferndale City Council passed a resolution of condolence at its most recent meeting to remember and honor a significant Ferndale figure who passed away.

The resolution was in honor of “B’Wana” Don Hunt, who died April 29 at the age of 84. Hunt was a former TV personality who hosted a show called “B’Wana Don in Jungle-La” on Channel 2 in the early 1960s, as well as the owner of three pet shops — one named B’Wana Don’s, formerly located at 22041 Woodward Ave., which closed in 2004 after 45 years of business.

Mayor Dave Coulter said the resolution to honor Hunt was one to signify the impact and mark Hunt had on the city.

“Especially for longtime residents, B’Wana Don Hunt was an icon,” he said. “He really helped put Ferndale on the map back in the day. His pet store was widely known, but more than that, his TV show became a very popular Michigan show that made him famous in this area.”

As a kid, Coulter said, he remembered watching Hunt’s TV show, which ran from 1960 to 1963, saying it was fascinating and “very distinctive.”

“It was one of the first times I remember learning about wild animals,” he said. “It was certainly educational for me.”

According to biographical information from the Ferndale Historical Society, Hunt spent all of his childhood in Ferndale, growing up on Ardmore Street. His interest in animals started early when his mother let him raise a pair of mallard ducks and a pair of Chinese ringneck pheasants in his backyard.

He would later work at a pet shop, Ferndale Feed and Pet Supply, as a kid and young adult in college at the University of Detroit before spending two years in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. When he returned home, he learned that the pet shop was for sale and bought 50 percent of it for $20,000, which he got from his parents mortgaging their home.

The name “B’Wana” was created for Hunt when he got his own TV show on WKBD TV-2, which he hosted along with his chimp, Bongo Bailey. The show became popular in the Detroit and Cleveland areas and aired in Japan and Australia.

Hunt was to film 130 more TV episodes during a trip to Kenya in 1967, but they were never completed. However, he fell in love with the country, decided to stay and spent the majority of the rest of his life in Kenya, where he helped co-found with his late wife, Iris, and actor William Holden the Mount Kenya Game Ranch and served as a trustee for the Mount Kenya Wildlife Conservancy.

Ferndale Historical Society Research Specialist Jean Spang had met Hunt through the years and said that he was very personable and well-respected around Ferndale.

“Ferndale, before that, it didn’t have many people famous coming from here, or TV,” she said. “That’s when TV first started to really be important in the region, and then when he got to Africa and got to know all the Hollywood types, it made it even more (interesting).

“It gave Ferndale a designation that we never had before,” she said.

Spang also went to Hunt’s pet shop when it was still open, and she recounted a memorable time when she went with her dad.

“One time, my dad took me in there to visit the pet store and (Hunt’s) monkey reached out of the cage and grabbed my dad’s glasses, and they had to chase him all around to get my dad’s glasses back,” she said with a laugh.

Hunt’s celebrity and popular pet shop, according to Coulter, helped put Ferndale on the map.

“As he became famous, his store in Ferndale also became famous,” he said. “So I think for a lot of people, Ferndale was the place with B’Wana Don’s pet store.”

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