Jungle Jack: A Conversation with Jack Hanna, Director Emeritus of the Columbus Zoo

Few zoo professionals are as iconic as Jack Hanna. From 1978 to 1992, as director he transformed the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium into a great zoo and one of the biggest tourist attractions in Ohio. Hanna helped promote the zoo first by taking animals around the state for programs and later by making national appearances on television. In 1992 he became the Zoo’s Director Emeritus, a role he still has today. The Columbus Zoo now one of the best zoos in the world. Here is his story.

@ Columbus Zoo

Jack Hanna began his career as the director of the Central Florida Zoo, a small zoo in Sanford, FL. He was there from 1973 to 1975. “I had four to five employees at Central Florida and it was a little, tiny zoo,” Hanna recalled. “We moved it to a new site where it’s grown [since.]” Once the zoo moved to its new site, he moved back to Tennessee. When Hanna’s family was back in Tennessee, an emergency came up. “We had just moved into that house when my daughter Julie had a 103 degree temperature,” he remembered. “They told us she was in critical condition and said we had to go to St. Jude’s Hospital in Memphis but that was a seven hour drive. We couldn’t get there in time so someone found a plane and flew us to St. Jude. Julie was one of only two kids who survived on her floor. She survived and the children’s hospital in Columbus was one of the places she could go to. That saved my daughter’s life and I got to direct the Columbus Zoo. Amazing story.”

@ Central Florida Zoo

When Jack Hanna became director in 1978, the Columbus Zoo desperately needed new life as attendance was low and many of its facilities were run down. He took it upon himself to make the zoo better for animals and more attractive and welcoming for people. “The Columbus Zoo had issues,” Hanna stated. “I had learned on the farm so I cleaned everything up. We painted all the buildings. I changed the uniform shirts to saying Columbus Zoo on them. I met and talked with every single one of the 40-50 employees [we had] and that’s how I started the whole thing.”

@ Columbus Zoo

Hanna also looked at ways to build the zoo’s name and connections to the community, largely through outreach programs. “I took the zoo downtown, to schools and all over the place,” he remarked. “The whole zoo was built on relationships. That’s the key word. It was relationships that built the Columbus Zoo, not Jack Hanna. I knew I had to make relationships with families and business people. I would take animals all over the place, go visit people and tell them what my dreams were. That’s how we started the Columbus Zoo.”

@ Columbus Zoo

One of Jack Hanna’s first actions as director was getting a new home for the zoo’s gorillas. “I can’t stand it when someone says I can’t do something,” he noted. “One of the first things we did was get the gorillas outside on grass [as] they had hardly seen daylight before. We took the old elephant habitat where there were no elephants (they had since moved to a different location in the zoo) and gave it to the gorillas. They said I couldn’t do it but I rolled in the moat, redid the entire elephant house and moved the gorillas to where they could come outside for the first time. That was our first increase in attendance.”

@ Columbus Zoo

@ Columbus Zoo

From then on, the Columbus Zoo continued to grow and purchased additional land that would come in handy later for expansions. “We started the levy up,” Hanna remarked. “As we grew and grew, we went to go ahead and get this farmland around us [for expansions.] Everyone kept telling me at the beginning the zoo was too far away but now we’re surrounded [by development.] We just wanted to be a good zoo but we’re now one of the largest zoos in the country and the most attended place in the state of Ohio. To me, the zoo is a dream.”

@ Columbus Zoo

@ Columbus Zoo

To promote the zoo, Jack Hanna began making appearances in the media starting with the local TV show Hanna’s Ark. “People are like ‘Gosh you do TV!’ but I never wanted to be on TV,” he explained. “I knew nothing about TV. It just happened with the birth of our twin gorillas. Good Morning America gave us national exposure. They came back again two months later and asked if I could bring animals to New York City to teach people. Then I started doing the Letterman Show and then started going all over the place. I did David Letterman [appearances] for thirty years. I do about 11 national shows as far as appearances.”

@ Columbus Zoo

“I don’t call myself a celebrity- I’m an animal ambassador,” Hanna elaborated. “It’s just how we got international exposure. We can’t keep up with all the exposure the zoo has now. I’m just myself on TV. It’s fun being on TV but I am just blessed to do this.”

@ Jack Hanna

@ Jack Hanna

Jack Hanna’s passion has always been first and foremost the Columbus Zoo. “When people ask what I’m most proud of, it’s the Columbus Zoo,” he reflected. “I walk around sometimes at night and can’t believe what’s happened. [I’m so grateful] those people believed in me and gave me the opportunity to take the job. I still can’t believe what the zoo has done. The one reason we succeeded is the city and the county worked together and gave us the opportunity to be a nonprofit. Both [the city and the county] have members on our board. Now people all over the world know the Columbus Zoo and the taxpayer sees what we’ve done with the entire state of Ohio.”

@ Columbus Zoo

Hanna mentioned he hired Tom Stalf, the zoo’s current director. Stalf sees customer service and the ability to relate to people as vital to the zoos success. “You have to understand people and explain to people what the zoo means,” Hanna elaborated. “We are the arks of the world period. Without us, a lot of these animals would not be around. We make sure people understand the value of these creatures.”

@ Columbus Zoo

@ Columbus Zoo

“The first thing I do is education,” Jack Hanna remarked. “Conservation is what we do but education comes first with Jack Hanna. When I go to the jungles of South America or Africa, I can’t just walk in and tell that culture what to do. If I say I’m a conservation interpreter, they say what? The first word I use is education. When I went to the Columbus Zoo, I made sure education came first. You have to educate people about conservation- it’s so simple it’s pitiful. Why do you conserve it? Why do you take care of a giraffe, tiger or elephant? You have to explain what conservation is- you can’t just go to a country and tell people what to do. We have to build conservation through education. Education built up what conservation is today.”

@ Columbus Zoo

“The Columbus Zoo is always trying to do everything we can with education and research support,” Hanna continued. “Our programs do as much with people as with animals. You have to work with people before you can save animals. This is kind of backwards from before. You used to tell people how to save something but you need to educate the world first. The zoo is always progressing. We’re working with the vet school at Ohio State and discovering things about the animal world. We have The Wilds, which took years to build and is really exciting. That’s going to become one of the most incredible conservation organizations in the world. It’s a golden triangle- Ohio State Vet School, The Wilds and the Columbus Zoo.”

@ Jack Hanna

@ Jack Hanna

“As far as my legacy, I’m very proud of having the opportunity [to do what I do,]” Jack Hanna concluded. “I want people to know I’m very blessed to have my daughter today and a zoological park, one of the finest in the world. The zoo is my home and will be doing things in the animal world way after I’m gone. The TV thing is one thing that’s been very helpful to the zoo but my whole legacy is the Columbus Zoo.”

@ Columbus Zoo

#ColumbusZoo #CentralFloridaZoo

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