Jack Hanna, Columbus Zoo's Director Emeritus, has dementia, his daughters say

Sheridan Hendrix
The Columbus Dispatch

Jack Hanna has been diagnosed with dementia, now believed to be Alzheimer's disease, Hanna's three daughters announced in a letter published Wednesday.

Hanna, the 74-year-old internationally known director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, has spent more than four decades in the public eye putting Columbus and its zoo's conservation efforts on the national stage. He officially retired from his role as the zoo's spokesperson in December 2020. 

Jack Hanna:Celebrating 40 years with the Columbus Zoo

Now, Hanna's daughters — Kathaleen, Suzanne and Julie — say their dad is unable to participate in public life like he once did as his condition has severely worsened in the last few months.

"A passion for wildlife conservation and education has been at the core of who our dad is and everything he has accomplished with the help of so many," the Hannas wrote. "He spent his life connecting people and wildlife because he has always believed that having people see and experience animals is key to engaging them in more impactful conservation efforts.

"He always said, 'You have to touch the heart to teach the mind.' Even though Dad is no longer able to travel and work in the same way, we know that his infectious enthusiasm has touched many hearts and will continue to be his legacy."

Hanna started at the Columbus Zoo in 1978

Hanna was born and raised in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he housed exotic animals on a spot on his dad's property called Hanna's Ark. He became director of the Columbus Zoo in 1978. Many credit Hanna for revitalizing the zoo and putting Columbus' conservation efforts on the map.

Hanna's popularity grew as he took his work on the road, sharing his love for animal conservation everywhere from classrooms to the set of "Late Night with David Letterman." In 2018, Hanna's calendar had him traveling 220 days a year. Millions of households also tuned in to Hanna's weekly TV programs — including Animal Adventures, Into the Wild and Wild Countdown.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium now is home to more than 10,000 animals, spans 588 acres and attracts millions of visitors each year.

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"To say that we are abundantly proud of our dad is an understatement," the Hannas wrote.

The Columbus Zoo and Aquarium shared the Hanna daughters' letter in a tweet Wednesday afternoon.

"We're saddened by the latest news of Jungle Jack's dementia diagnosis, now believed to be Alzheimer's disease, and Julie's health complications that were shared today in a heartfelt letter written by Jack's daughters. Please join us in sending messages of support for the Hannas," the zoo wrote.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine released a statement Wednesday afternoon sending his condolences to the Hanna family.

“Fran and I were very sad to learn of Jack Hanna’s diagnosis of Alzheimer’s that his family so bravely shared with Ohio and the world today," DeWine said. “Over the years, Fran and I have had the opportunity to take our kids and grandkids to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and The Wilds. When we were there with Jack, we were so fortunate to experience his passion for animals and the natural world."

Columbus Mayor Andrew J. Ginther shared the governor's sentime.

"My heart goes out to the Hanna family at the news of Jack’s diagnosis of dementia. It is a cruel disease that steals our loved ones from us bit by bit. I pray for them to have strength and to know how much this community loves them," Ginther said.

From left, Julie, Jack and Suzi Hanna hold a trio of 3-week-old baby cheetahs recently rescued from Fossil Rim Wildlife Center inside the promotions department at the the Columbus Zoo & Aquarium on May 29, 2018. [Adam Cairns / Dispatch]

Family finding strength in Suzi Hanna

Jack Hanna is not the only family member currently dealing with health issues. Daughter Julie is recovering from a major surgery and has dealt with lifelong health issues as a result of childhood leukemia.

The Hanna daughters wrote that despite the hardships of these last few months, they've found strength in their mother and Jack's wife of 53 years, Suzi, who they say has been the family's rock. They also wrote they've been strengthened knowing "the many hearts he's touched over the years are with him during this journey."

"While Dad's health has deteriorated quickly, we can assure you that his great sense of humor continues to shine through," Hanna's daughters wrote. "And yes — he still wears khakis at home."

shendrix@dispatch.com

@sheridan120