In December of 2020, after 42 years, Jack Hanna retired from his director position of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, stating (via ABC), "I believe it is time to wind down and officially step back." It was not clear then that Jack would be retiring from all areas of his life only four months later.
The wildlife animal activist, affectionately known as Jungle Jack, has been diagnosed with dementia, and according to a statement released by his daughters, he is deteriorating quickly. "His condition has progressed much faster in the last few months than any of us could have anticipated," his daughters said.
In their heartfelt letter to the public, Jack’s daughters’, Kathaleen, Suzanne, and Julie say, "Sadly, Dad is no longer able to participate in public life as he used to, where people all over the world watched, learned and laughed alongside him." In a recent tweet, the Columbus Zoo stated, "We’re saddened by the latest news of Jungle Jack’s dementia diagnosis, now believed to be Alzheimer’s disease… please join us in sending messages of support for the Hannas."
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, Alzheimer’s disease is a progressive, neurologic condition that can greatly impact a person’s ability to remember and think, and can impact behavior as well. It has no cure, and is known to be the most common form of dementia — and is not a normal part of aging.
The beginning of a legacy
According to Ohio History Central, Hanna’s love for animals began when he was a child, raising bluegill fish in his family’s bathtub. After graduating college, with his wife, he opened a petting zoo and pet store in Florida, where he also served as the director of the Central Florida Zoo for two years.
Hanna moved on to accept the position as executive director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 1978, where he is said to be responsible for the massive success that followed. In the 14 years he held that position, Jack made monumental improvements.
He did away with the caged viewing of animals and instituted more natural environments for them. He focused on educational efforts as well as securing more donations to help continually improve the zoo. Most impressive during his time as executive director was the increase in the zoo’s annual visitors, which skyrocketed from 350,000 in 1978, to 1.4 million in 1992. The Columbus Zoo comments on Jack’s retirement in a press release stating, "His vision and leadership helped transform the Zoo into one of the world’s most beloved, innovative, and influential zoos".
Jack Hanna has always been a man with a mission
Jungle Jack first appeared on Good Morning America in 1983 with two baby gorillas, winning the hearts of the anchors and the audience. Good Morning America‘s 30 year anniversary special from Jack Hanna’s first appearance on the show provides a look at the incredible efforts he has made through the years to bring awareness to wildlife conservation. His family states it’s their belief that people being able to "see and experience animals is key to engaging them in more impactful conservation efforts."
Jack Hanna and his animals continued to have segments on talk shows like The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, Late Night with David Letterman, and Larry King Live. While his charismatic nature continued to win over audiences, Jack made sure to use his time on the shows to educate people about the animals. Hanna states on his website, "The animals that I bring on television are ambassadors to their cousins in the wilds, and are cared for by professionals."
Animal activist and educator
According to CNN, those popular talk show episodes are what led to the launch of Jungle Jacks own educational television shows including Animal Adventures and Into the Wild. His popular Into the Wild series, about different kinds of animals all over the world living in their natural habitat, was awarded a Daytime Emmy Award in the years 2008, 2012, and 2013.
In addition to Hanna’s popular TV shows, he is also the author of books for children and adults, including Jungle Jack Hanna’s What Zoo-Keepers Do, Jungle Jack: My Wild Life, and Jungle Jack’s Wackiest, Wildest, Weirdest Animals in the World.
Even with his vigorous and demanding schedule, Jack still made time to visit Rwanda at least once a year with his wife, Suzi, as part of their dedication to the grass-roots project, Partners in Conservation (PIC). This is the Columbus Zoo’s signature conservation project benefitting the gorillas of Rwanda. Jack believes that because of PIC that there has been so much learned about the mountain gorillas and how to make a sustainable difference for them in the wild.
Jack hanna is a family man
With all of his success as an animal activist, wildlife educator, author, TV personality, and being labeled "America’s favorite zookeeper," Jack is a family man. Jack has been married to his wife Suzi for more than 50 years, and up until recently, they enjoyed hiking together and spending as much time as possible with their children and grandchildren (via Muskingum University). His daughters reiterate the bond between their father and mother in their public statement that their mom "has been by his side for 53 years in every corner of the world. She continues to be his rock (and ours, too)."
In a statement regarding his retirement, Jack makes it clear that his family was an integral part of his work life, stating (via ABC)., "Suzi and I couldn’t be prouder to be a part of the Central Ohio community and Columbus Zoo and Aquarium family. Our 42 years at the Columbus Zoo have been the best of our lives — we’ve raised our daughters here and had the honor of revitalizing our Zoo alongside a great team while being advocates for wildlife worldwide."
Jack Hanna is a true inspiration
Although retired, according to NBC, Jack remains director emeritus for the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. His daughters stress the love he has for the zoo, as well as the appreciation he holds for all who work and volunteer there. In their open letter, they confirm their support for their father’s passion, stating, "We share his dedication to the Central Ohio community and will continue to support the Columbus Zoo and conservation efforts around the world."
In a press release regarding his retirement, Columbus Zoo and Aquarium President/CEO Tom Stalf sums up Hanna’s tremendous efforts and work stating, "Jack Hanna has made an incredible difference for wildlife across the globe and is a true inspiration to our Central Ohio community and most certainly our staff. Throughout the 25 years that I’ve worked with Jack, I’ve appreciated his authenticity and his endless energy and devotion to making the world a better place."
As difficult of a diagnosis as Alzheimer’s is, Kathaleen, Suzanne, and Julie share that during this challenging time Jack’s "great sense of humor continues to shine through."