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5 Years: We Built a Zoo

5 Years: We Built a Zoo

Kevin J. Elliott

Welcome to the Jungle
Spend an hour with Jack Hanna and you’re bound to hear a lifetime of stories. To call Hanna endearingly passionate about the Columbus Zoo and its future is an understatement. The man’s mind moves faster than his mouth.

For the sake of this piece (and the issue), I prepared for any time with Hanna as precious minutes, whittling questions down to just what’s happened at the Columbus Zoo in the last five years – which in itself entails an elephant-worth of words. Polar bears, Zoombezi Bay, dinosaurs, the announcement of a satellite campus downtown, and this summer’s ambitious Heart of Africa exhibit all represent huge notches in the Zoo’s ever-expanding timeline. But within that span, exotic “pets” ran wild in Zanesville, a giraffe was “culled” in Copenhagen, the Sea World-damning Blackfish documentary was released, and by default, it seems Hanna is where most fingers point when questions arise.

I ask Hanna if he tires of it, or if he feels it has become his responsibility to crusade against all of the controversies that have crossed his path over the last five years.

“It’s the responsibility of [the] Columbus Zoo and the people who built this zoo,” replies Hanna immediately. “If the Columbus Zoo were to do something like that [referring to the incident in Copenhagen] I would hope that my butt would get fired. As far as what happens in this country and around the world? What the Columbus Zoo ‘thinks’ is a resource to them.”

Indeed. Columbus is home to what is perennially regarded as the best zoo in the states, so naturally Hanna, who has been directly responsible for bringing the zoo to that distinction since he became director in 1978, is the center of that universe. Despite his time spent promoting conservation and eco-tourism in Africa and the Middle East or promoting his model to other zoos around the country eager to replicate what he has accomplished in Columbus, it’s his personality as a talking head that is in demand the most.

“It’s amazing that human beings can lose their lives every night, but as soon as an animal is harmed it’s front page news,” says Hanna responding to his busy last few years as this authority figure. “You see the difference when it comes to the media. I did 14 shows after what happened in Denmark.”

Similarly, since that fateful Ohio night in 2011 when 53 wild animals, including full-grown lions and bears, were set loose by owner Terry Thompson and eventually put down by local police, there’s not a day that goes by where Hanna isn’t bombarded by recollections of the mayhem in Zanesville. As a result, his efforts in raising awareness on the issue have guided the Ohio legislature to pass a new law started this year, which bans the sale, ownership, and breeding of exotic animals.

“I’ve taken some criticism over that from a lot of people who have animals, but you’ve got to understand I’ve witnessed a lot of things in my life. I once had a little boy, a three-year-old, who lost his arm to an African lion, so I’ve seen what can happen with exotic animals,” says Hanna of his approval of the law. “But I was taking care of these animals professionally. I gave up everything I had to take care of those animals. It’s not a matter of buying a lion for $1,000; it’s what does it cost to house and feed it? It takes millions of dollars. What Terry Thompson was doing in Zanesville was what I would call hoarding.”

According to Hanna, ignorance creates criticism and controversy. He’s the first to point out that education and conservation cannot come without a genuine love for the animal first. It might sound idyllic, almost guru-like, but he backs that philosophy with a story of his first pet, “Petey” the parakeet, which he was taught at a young age to care for as if Petey were part of the family.

“I used to speak at prisons a lot and I would always ask how many of them ever had a pet as a child,” remembers Hanna, “and hardly any of them would raise their hands. There’s a very good reason as to why they bring dogs in for therapy now.”

In Jack We Trust
His phone rings and it’s Suzi, Hanna’s wife of 45 years, asking the exact dress code for their upcoming visit to Buckingham Palace, at the request of Prince Phillip. The exchange ends with Hanna admitting he’ll need to buy a dark suit because most of his wardrobe consists of his trademark khakis.

Just last week, he was celebrated as the most frequent guest on the Late Show with David Letterman with an endangered albino porcupine and snot otter in tow. Yesterday he was fielding an expletive-filled call from Betty White, who was offering up money to rescue the second Copenhagen giraffe set for slaughter. He’s a man always on the move, always optimistic, and though he thoughtfully answered my queries about the dark side of the animal kingdom, he was quick to shift the conversation towards his dreams for the Columbus Zoo.

The zoo is quite popular as far as voters are concerned. Never has a levy for the zoo failed to pass since Hanna has been at the reigns. Next month though, he faces what might be the biggest challenge of his tenure in the form of a permanent tax levy. The levy is being put in place to ensure that the zoo’s aspirations will continue long after Hanna has left, preserving what he has helped build for “generations to come.”

“For the next 60 days, I do feel like a politician. I’m not running for office. I’m trying to continue what the citizens of Franklin County have built,” says Hanna of his campaign for the levy. “I’m not patting myself on the back and taking all of the credit for this. That’s stupid. I’m not an idiot. My first obligation for this zoo – well, the first obligation is to our animals – but the next obligation is to make Franklin County voters happy. They’re the ones that have driven this thing; I’m just the lucky person who works for them.”

Onward & Upward
On a recent visit during a cold and snowy President’s Day, I noticed that even under frigid conditions, the zoo was thriving. Anyone doubting the work Hanna puts toward the day-to-day operations of the park obviously hasn’t visited in a while. Manatees rehabbing in Discovery Reef; bears frolicking in the massive Polar Playground; Colo, the oldest gorilla in captivity, holding down the fort in Expedition Congo; and off to the horizon, men in hard hats scramble to finish the new Heart of Africa exhibit before it’s set to open in May.

The 43-acre expansion is meant to replicate the experience of being on safari in an African veld. With villas for feeding giraffes, cheetah runs, camels rides, and an additional 150 animals added to the zoo’s growing family, it’s Hanna’s most ambitious project in all of his years in Columbus.

“Many of the things we are doing with the Heart of Africa exhibit are things that have never been done,” explains Hanna of this summer’s big attraction. “Our zoo has always been a vision. Our staff’s vision since we got here has only grown. I never had a vision I thought I couldn’t do. Many of the dreams that I’ve had for the zoo have mostly come true.”

Within minutes of describing what visitors might encounter there, Hanna’s up and giddily pointing at an aerial map of the zoo, citing possible space for a giant panda habitat. Even with the downtown satellite campus in the development stages and an increased partnership with the Wilds, his dreams extend far past retirement. He’s looking deep into the future and that future includes pandas.

“This is a chance to sustain what we have here, which is the best there is,” says Hanna, reminding me one last time what a permanent levy can do for the zoo and Columbus as a whole. “And we just keep going up.”

Heart of Africa opens this May. For more, visit

Editor’s Note: Jungle Jack wasn’t just kind to pose on the cover of our May 2011 ColumBEST issue as the readers’ favorite celebrity, but he was a damn trooper. Sick, hoarse, and fresh off a red-eye from Africa, Hanna gladly slipped on the foam finger we presented him with, cradling penguins and albino kangaroos in the process. Frankly, it’s among the most frantic 11 minutes I’ve ever had on the job. Looks like he hasn’t slowed down much in the three years since.



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