Jack Hanna's Wild Journey

It's been an amazing 42-year ride for the world's most famous zookeeper. Even in retirement, his legacy will continue to impact the Columbus Zoo.

Julanne Hohbach
Columbus Parent
Jack Hanna, photographed in Jack's Base Camp Yurt at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. The yurt was used as a filming location for "Jack Hanna's Into the Wild" and "Jack Hanna's Wild Countdown." The zoo announced Dec. 9 that it had been relocated to The Wilds.

Energetic. Kind. Humble. Jack Hanna is many things to many people, but to Suzi, his wife of nearly 52 years, and others who know him best, it’s those qualities that stand out.

But to residents of Central Ohio young and old and to TV audiences around the world, he’s Jungle Jack Hanna—lover of animals, passionate conservationist, author, entertainer, TV personality and hands-down, without a doubt the best ambassador any zoo has ever had.

Soon, though, the director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium will retire from his post—a career that has spanned 42 years, all seven continents and more television appearances than anyone can count.

The zoo announced in June that Hanna would hang up his hat on Dec. 31. He will retain the title of director emeritus, and his name will continue to be used, including on Jack Hanna’s Animal Encounters Village, which opened this summer as part of the new Adventure Cove region, the zoo’s largest.

Hanna, whose contract expires at the end of the year, says the timing was right to retire and spend more time with family. “The main thing for me is that we have grandkids in England, the United Kingdom, we have them in Cincinnati, so there’s things I want to do at my age,” he says from their home near Glacier National Park in Montana. He also wants to return to some of the countries he visited on his TV shows. “We went all over the world filming things. So if I get the time, I want to find the time to go and talk with the people who we worked with all over, with all those animals all over the world.”

“The Man in Khaki,” as he came to be known, joined the zoo in 1978 and grew into a beloved figure not only in Central Ohio, but internationally. In addition to having his TV own shows, he frequently made other media appearances to educate audiences about animals, the zoo and conservation. His 102 visits with late-night host David Letterman were the stuff of TV legend, with the host making jokes at Hanna’s expense and the animals occasionally running amok. But those segments and many others played a significant role in raising the profile of the Columbus Zoo, which was perched on the brink of extinction at the time Hanna was hired.

How times have changed.

What a Long, Strange Trip It’s Been

Hanna was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in 1947. He developed a passion for animals on the farm his family bought when he was 5, and he started working at age 11 cleaning cages for a local veterinarian. After graduating from The Kiski School, an all-boys boarding school in Pennsylvania, he came to Ohio in 1965 to study at Muskingum College, as it was then known, with dreams of being a zookeeper.

It was there in New Concord that he met the love of his life, Suzi Egli. Hanna had taken his pet donkey, Doc, to school and it lived behind a fraternity house for a time. “In my French class I looked over and saw this beautiful lady, which was my wife today, Suzi. … And she was very pretty and a cheerleader. … And I said, ‘Hi, I’m Jack Hanna, can you go and help me feed my donkey, please?’ … Can you imagine how romantic that is?” Hanna says with a laugh.

At first, they were best friends, Suzi Hanna recalls, but then the relationship deepened. They were married in 1968, and Suzi was soon pregnant with their first daughter, Kathaleen, before graduating in 1969.

“When we got married, we danced to ‘Born Free’ and it was almost foreshadowing of what our life was going to be like. But at that point, I still was in college. Jack had graduated, but we had no idea what direction our life would take. And when I look back at it now, I just cannot believe the amazing experiences that [we’ve] had. But what warms your heart more than anything is that you just pray that you’ve made a positive difference in the world,” she says.

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After the Hannas graduated, they moved to Knoxville. He held a series of odd jobs, owned a pet store, did a two-year stint as zoo director at the Central Florida Zoo, ventured into animal filmmaking and sold real estate. Their family grew with the addition of two more daughters, Suzanne and Julie.

In 1978, a friend learned that the Columbus Zoo was looking for a director. The Hannas’ youngest daughter, Julie, had been diagnosed with leukemia and treated at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis. They wanted to be close to top-notch care for her, and the reputation of Children’s Hospital in Columbus was an added incentive.

At the time, the zoo was part of Columbus’ Sewers and Drains Department and was on the verge of losing its affiliation with the American Association of Zoological Parks and Aquariums.

“When I landed up there to go see the zoo, the cab driver said, ‘We don’t have a zoo.’ So the one thing I knew I had to do then is to tell people that the Columbus Zoo is not right in the city of Columbus, just north of there, so that’s what I went to work to do right away,” Hanna says.

Also on his to-do list: building morale and creating an open-door mentality among staff, as well as constructing more natural animal habitats, especially for the lowland gorillas, who had never been outside. “The first thing I did was to try and do that, to get the animals outside on grass,” he says.

A Star Is Born

Mel Dodge, then the director of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department, which came to run the zoo, served as a mentor and friend over the years and supported Hanna’s hiring. “I said, oh my gosh, I have a chance to really build a zoo. It’s just one of those things that I was just very lucky to be a part of the zoo. That meant the world to me,” Hanna says.

But the zoo didn’t just get a new director; it got the whole Hanna clan. “The beauty was, because Jack’s job was the zoo, that our family could be with him. So on Sunday, a typical day was going to church, getting Kentucky Fried Chicken, having a picnic at the zoo. And then we would get in the golf cart as Jack would go around checking everything. And our family made a game out of picking up trash. And to this day, it’s just a very happy memory for our whole family,” Suzi Hanna says.

Hanna garnered early support from Worthington Industries founder John H. McConnell, who donated funds to transform the gorilla habitat, which opened in 1979 at a cost of $50,000.

Zoo attendance was a mere 341,000 in 1978, so Hanna employed several stunts to lure visitors, including hiring a human cannonball and a member of the famous Wallenda family, who performed a tightrope walk over the tigers.

He also focused on cultivating support from the community—both from corporations and, eventually, from Franklin County voters, who passed a levy to support the zoo in 1985 and others since.

Hanna’s efforts got a big shot in the arm in 1981 with the debut of his TV show, Hanna’s Ark, which he hosted with Kathaleen. It ran for two years on WBNS-10TV.

In 1983, Hanna was invited to Good Morning America to talk about the zoo’s twin gorillas—the first such pair born in the Western Hemisphere—and it led to regular spots on the show.

Two years later, he made his first appearance on NBC’s Late Night with David Letterman and ultimately tallied 102 visits there and on CBS’ Late Show with David Letterman before the host retired in 2015. Hanna has many stories about those visits, perhaps none more iconic than when he appeared with a beaver in 1988 and used it as an opportunity to play a trick on Letterman.

“When you first feed these animals, they’ll go to the bathroom in their little water tank. So I fed the animal in the water tank and took it on the Letterman show and sure enough, he went to the bathroom and slapped it all over David Letterman’s desk. People laughed like crazy. I said, ‘Oh man, I got back [at] him.’” Unfortunately, the joke was on Hanna, who was bitten on the hand when the beaver got spooked by the drums. He finished the segment, bleeding into a glove, and rushed down the street to a hospital, where he was greeted by a nurse screaming loudly that he had been shot. “I said, ‘Ma’am I wasn’t shot, I was bitten by a beaver.’”

His final Letterman appearance, on April 29, 2015, was a clip-filled treat that brought Hanna to tears. You can still find it on YouTube.

Hanna’s TV talent eventually earned him three syndicated shows of his own, including Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures, which ran from 1993 to 2008; Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild, which debuted in 2007 and earned him five Emmy awards; and Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown, which started in 2011.

Hanna served as director of the zoo until 1992, when he became the director emeritus. Over the years, he has written 15 books, including his 2008 autobiography, “Jungle Jack: My Wild Life.”

“He Was Willing to Take Risks”

The other Suzi in Hanna’s life is Suzi Rapp, the zoo’s vice president of animal programs, who has worked with Hanna since 1979 and spent countless days on the road with him for TV appearances.

“He is truly one of the kindest human beings I’ve ever met in my life. And I am truly blessed to have gotten to work with him for as many years as I have,” Rapp says. “He was never this iron fist kind of guy … any decision he made was made from the heart.

“He is truly one of the most supportive people I’ve ever met. And I think why he was so successful, he was willing to take risks that no other zoo people were willing to take. You know, he was willing to take the risks that may or may not work out. Most of them did, some of them didn’t. But because of that, I think I’m the risk-taker that I am. And I have gotten where I am because I learned from him,” Rapp says.

One of the most successful gambles was the animal ambassador program. “When he came to the zoo, the Columbus Zoo was one of the 10 worst zoos in the country. And his goal was to turn it around, but the problem was people weren’t coming to the Columbus Zoo. So he knew to get the support he needed, he had to take animals to the people. And so that’s what he did. I mean, we literally would take animals in this white station wagon,” Rapp says. They would make stops in the offices of local executives and at schools and libraries. The outreach worked.

Growth over the years has been tremendous. The zoo went from 341,000 visitors in 1978 to 1 million in 1991 and nearly 3 million in 2019. The operating budget grew, too, from $2 million to $100 million.

Today, the zoo and its 10,000 animals are a huge draw for locals and visitors alike. Kari Kauffman, vice president of destination experience at Experience Columbus, says the changes Hanna ushered in over the years and his countless national TV appearances raised the zoo’s profile and brought numerous accolades, including the 2009 designation from USA Travel Guide naming it the No. 1 zoo in America. “His connection to Columbus raises awareness of Columbus,” she says. “He has really brought great recognition.”

Focus on Conservation

But Hanna’s celebrity status didn’t just raise the profile of the zoo and earn him a place on People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People in the World” in 1996. It enabled him to raise funds for the causes he cares about: conservation, children and humanitarian efforts, including in Rwanda, where the Hannas have traveled numerous times to observe the mountain gorillas. They are so passionate about the gorillas, the country and its people, they even built a home there.

Partners in Conservation, started at the zoo in 1991, focuses on conservation and humanitarian issues in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo with the help of more than three dozen partner organizations. Rapp says the nonprofit was focused on Rwandan gorillas and expanded its scope to build a school for children affected by genocide. “It’s not just about animals,” she says. “He’s truly a humanitarian, because in his philosophy, if you don’t take care of the people, there’s no way you can take care of the animals.”

In 2019, the zoo awarded more than $902,000 in grants to support conservation projects in 37 countries. Tom Stalf, the zoo’s president and CEO, says Hanna has used his platform to present conservation issues to a broad audience. “There’s hundreds of thousands of people right now in this world that are either zookeepers, veterinarians or some type of conservationist because they were inspired by Jack,” he says. “He’s a good listener, he’s a great problem-solver, and he’s a doer, and so when you put all of these together and focus on conservation, we see a great positive impact,” Stalf says. “People get behind him when he says there’s an animal in need. People trust him, and they donate.”

“He Always Puts the Zoo First”

Talk to those who know Hanna, and the word “humble” pops up time and again. Stalf says Hanna is gracious with his time, signing autographs, taking pictures and telling stories with adoring fans. People often express surprise that the Hannas seem so down to earth, Stalf says, and he has tried to take a page from that playbook. From Hanna, Stalf says, he learned “to be a servant leader. Jack has always done whatever he felt was the best for his team and his community.”

“I’ve learned my leadership through Jack,” he says. “He’s invested in me and he’s like a father figure to me, and I really appreciate everything he’s given me.”

 Dave Blom, the retired president and CEO of OhioHealth, is a longtime friend of Hanna. They met through OhioHealth’s role as a zoo sponsor. Blom and his wife, Kris, have taken numerous trips with the Hannas over the years, including hiking and fishing in Montana and going to Africa.

“Wherever I’ve been with Jack—all over the West, Africa and many other places—he always puts the zoo first,” Blom says. “With the profile and the visibility and the charisma he has, he could have made this a lot more about himself, and he didn’t do that. He made it all about the zoo and the city. He could have enriched himself much more than he did on all this, but he’s made the zoo and the city and Central Ohio first.”

Blom also credits Hanna for boosting the business sense of the zoo. “He has really professionalized it. He has embraced science and business principals,” Blom says. “Probably the most important thing is he has given it a brand. The Columbus Zoo has a wonderful brand internationally, not just nationally.”

Jack Hanna, photographed at the still-under-construction Heart of Africa region in 2014

For now, the Hannas, who also have homes on zoo property and near Jupiter, Florida, plan to enjoy time with family. Kathaleen is married, has two children and lives in the United Kingdom. Suzanne, her husband and four children live in Cincinnati. Julie lives in Dublin and works in the zoo’s animal programs department.

His colleagues say Hanna’s legacy will endure, through the facilities he helped expand and build and through the Jack and Suzi Hanna Fund, which the zoo established in 2018 to support wildlife conservation, education and habitats.

“His vision and his drive and his passion is what turned the zoo around to make it truly one of the greatest zoos in the world. It’s not one of the best in the country. It’s one of the best in the world. And that is Jack Hanna, because he is what inspired people. He is what inspired this community,” Rapp says.

Hanna, ever modest, credits his “amazing team” and the community for the transformation. “I owe a great deal to Columbus, Ohio. Columbus, Ohio, helped me a great deal with what I always wanted to do, helped save my daughter’s life,” Hanna says. “I just still can’t believe the beauty of Columbus, Ohio.”

Those who know Hanna well expect that he won’t be a stranger. Count Stalf among them. “I am proud and humbled to be the leader of this organization, and it’s a great legacy that I will always continue to promote because no matter what, this is Jack Hanna’s zoo and we’re proud of that.”

“It was a great life I had, it really was,” Hanna says. “I got to go when I first got there and help build the zoo, and now the zoo’s one of the finest in the country because of the people in Columbus, Ohio, they’re the ones that helped so well. And so many companies Downtown in Columbus, Ohio, helped build the zoo. So I was just lucky to be there to work for everybody.”

This story is from the Winter 2020 issue of Columbus Parent.