The local animal conservationist power couple reflect on their involvement with the Columbus Zoo, which Jack Hanna calls “the dream of a lifetime.”
Last month, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium made the startling announcement that “Jungle Jack” Hanna, long the public face of the zoo, will retire on Dec. 31 after 42 years as its director and director emeritus. (He will retain the latter title despite stepping back from his public role.)
“As I approach my mid-70s with more than four decades at the Columbus Zoo, I believe it is time to wind down and officially step back,” Hanna said in a press release issued that day. “Together with many friends and partners, we’ve come a long way to make the world a better place for people and wildlife!”
Columbus Monthly reached Hanna and his wife of more than 50 years, Suzi, at their summer home in Montana to talk about the mishaps, successes and adventures they’ve encountered during Hanna’s long career.
Note: Responses have been edited for length and clarity.
How did you come to the decision to retire at the end of the year?
Jack: Well, for a long time [I didn’t want to], because the zoo is my life. Sue and I both, that’s our life, living with all the animals and the people. But as you get older, you know, our kids, living in Cincinnati and England, are getting married and having babies. We realized that we’ve got to move on and see them more.
Suzi: Yeah, you realize as you get older that you can’t buy time, and time becomes more and more precious. And like Jack said, our grandchildren already are growing up so fast. One’s getting married, our first one is getting married in September!
Jack: But I want people to know that I’m not just going to walk away from the zoo and never go back. Are you kidding me? The Columbus Zoo is my home!Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to our weekly newsletters.
What were your impressions when you saw the zoo for the first time?
Suzi: Our dear friend’s sister was a judge in Columbus, and she saw an ad in the paper advertising for a zoo director. So she told her brother, her brother told us and Jack applied for the job. So Jack’s friend, Stan Brock—who was on Wild Kingdom with Marlin Perkins, he was a good buddy of ours and a pilot—he flew Jack up to Columbus from where we lived in Knoxville, Tennessee, to see the zoo.
Jack: So he flies me up there to see the zoo from the air. We got maybe 100 miles out and he called the tower and the tower says, “Columbus doesn’t have a zoo.” True story! We kept going, he called again, and I’ll be darned, but again they said, “Columbus doesn’t really have a zoo.” I thought, oh my gosh, no. So finally we sort it out and buzz over, and I said, “Oh, this is gonna be beautiful because it's on a river, it's on a river.” I got so excited. So we land and get into a taxi at the airport, and the taxi driver tells us, “Columbus doesn’t have a zoo.” Oh my god!
Suzi: The zoo was in dire straits. We knew that it was going to be a huge challenge. But if you’re at the bottom, you can’t go any lower—but you sure as heck can go up!
Tell us about those early days—what were they like?
Suzi: [Laughing] He was a workaholic! Jack worked seven days a week.
Jack: I sure did. Monday through Sunday. I never missed one day, not one day for almost—what was it, Sue?—it had to be 10 or 15 years.
Suzi: On Sundays, the beautiful thing was that our family could enjoy the zoo as well. We would all go to church, then get Kentucky Fried Chicken, go to the zoo and have our picnic. Then we’d all get in the golf cart while Jack would check things at the zoo, say hi to people. We made a game of picking up trash—who got the most? And we would get really excited when we would see some trash!
The zoo has come so far those early days; what are some of the most important changes you’ve ushered in?
Jack: Just like most zoos back then, animals at the Columbus Zoo lived in cages when I first arrived. We changed that. And another thing, zoos in the country have given probably billions of dollars to animals in the wild. As a matter of fact, in 2019, accredited zoos in the country gave $230 million to fuel conservation!
Suzi: Like Jack always says, the animals at the zoo are ambassadors to their cousins in the wild. The famous quote that so many zoos use is that you conserve what you love; you love what you know; you know what you’re taught. It goes back to education. And once that happens, you hope that people want to do everything they can to protect these magnificent animals in the wild. Maybe you already know this, but the Columbus Zoo helps to support over 100 different conservation projects in more than 42 different countries.
And what accomplishments in your career are you most proud of?
Jack: One thing I must say is The Wilds—when they called us and donated that land, that really made a big difference. Yes, we do have habitats that are beautiful, that cost millions of dollars. But at The Wilds, when you go out there to look at the animals, you’re in Africa. We’ve been very lucky to show that to people; I mean, not everyone can go to Africa.
Suzi: And Rwanda is really in our heart now. The people of Rwanda really are family. That goes back to the ’90s, when Charlene Gentry was a gorilla keeper at the zoo and she went to Jack to tell him about the importance of saving the dwindling population of mountain gorillas in Rwanda. That’s when Partners In Conservation was started. It’s amazing to see the impact that has had.
And then just probably one last thing about gorillas, I think probably for Jack and me, one of the biggest moments in our life, was transitioning the zoo’s gorillas out of their cages. You saw these magnificent animals among concrete and steel bars and you think, Oh my gosh, they've never been on grass. So Jack went to Mr. [John] McConnell at Worthington Industries, and dear Mr. McConnell said, “Yes, we will help you.” They turned an old elephant exhibit into an exhibit for the gorillas. And for those gorillas to come out and walk on grass for the first time—I even get chills now, when I think about it.
Jack: I had the honor of just being there. Some people say, “Oh Jack, you built the zoo.” No, Jack didn’t build the zoo; the people and the businesses of Columbus built it.
Do you have any other favorite memories?
Suzi: I’m thinking when the zoo was voted No. 1 in the United States by USA Today and all the zoo employees stood out in front of the zoo and they did this amazing commercial. That was so special—to think about where the zoo came from in 1978, when we first arrived, to that moment when it was voted No. 1. That was such a special feeling for the zoo employees, but also for the community of Columbus.
Jack: That was a big one, and here’s another one: They had snow monkeys, so I put them on an island surrounded by a bunch of water. About a week later, you won’t believe this: the snow monkeys escaped! I didn’t know they could swim. Oh my gosh, it was the most embarrassing thing.
Suzi: Two of them were gone for months. They finally got them up in Sandusky. And that became the name of Jack’s first book: Monkeys on the Interstate.
It’s been a wild adventure for you, to be sure! So as you count down the months to retirement, what are you looking forward to, aside from spending time with your family?
Jack: We love hiking; Sue and I hike a great deal out in the mountains, here in Montana. I maybe want to go back to Africa and some of the other countries where we’ve filmed. We’ve made friends there, and I also want to see the magnificent animals there. When you’re filming, you know, you’re filming; you’re not going to see a lot of the animals.
Suzi: For Jack and myself, our favorite times—besides being with family and friends—are really being out in the wilderness where we’re one with nature and seeing animals in their natural habitat. It’s just such a joy, and what’s so beautiful about it is, it’s free! Everybody can do it.
Jack: But the zoo will always be where we live, in a way. Columbus, Ohio, is where I always tell people where I’m from, because Columbus has given me the dream of a lifetime.
Suzi: Columbus will never get rid of us, for sure. We just love it too much. And there’s such a great appreciation, from both Jack and myself, to the people of Central Ohio and the zoo staff. Honestly, they have truly been amazing, and they have made a huge impact as far as making this a better world. I’ll leave you with my favorite quote, because it really describes the people of Columbus: You make a living by what you get, but you make a life by what you give. [Winston Churchill, paraphrased] And Central Ohio has given so much.