Jack Hanna: 35 years transforming Columbus' zoo
Sep 19, 2013 at 4:33 PM
"Columbus doesn't have a zoo," the air-traffic controller told the private pilot and his passenger as the pair flew into central Ohio.
After they landed, a taxi driver said the same thing.
Those statements — made in 1978 when Jack Hanna interviewed for the director's job of what was, indeed, a zoo — have stuck with Hanna over the past 35 years.
He often tells the story, not just because it's humorous but because it illustrates a truth: The zoo, now world famous and hailed as No. 1 in America, wasn't much when Hanna took over. But then, neither was Hanna.
At 31, he'd worked as a small-time zoo director and a wildlife-film producer. He'd contracted hepatitis from an infected chimpanzee and moved his family after a lion they owned had taken off a boy's arm in Knoxville, Tenn. He'd traveled to South America to release animals to the wild and, most recently, had worked in real estate.
But his personality was larger than life; his attitude was say-it-like-it-is; and he had a deep, personal knowledge of wild animals. He won the favor of Mel Dodge, the director of the city's Recreation and Parks Department and a force to be reckoned with when city business was involved.
Dodge, who died in 1991, didn't bother with how-do-you-dos when he interviewed Hanna.
"Do you like lions?" he asked sternly.
"Yes, sir," Hanna stammered, explaining that he and his wife had raised 16 lion cubs.
"OK, we're going to get along," Dodge said. Then he invited Hanna to spend the night at his house. The next morning, Dodge's wife, Norma, told Hanna he'd passed another test: "You make your own bed," she said.
So Hanna packed up his wife, Suzi, and their three young daughters and moved to central Ohio.
The zoo that Hanna joined on Sept. 18, 1978, was vastly different from today's Columbus Zoo and Aquarium.
Like most zoos of that era, animals were kept in cages and had little if any contact with the outdoors. That was only one of the things that Hanna, whose starting salary was $15,000 a year, set about to change.
Oversight of the zoo recently had been switched from the city's Sewers and Drains Department to Recreation and Parks. Within a year, Hanna and Dodge had come up with a 10-year zoo-expansion plan: Animals would have friendlier, more-natural habitats; visitors would have a cleaner, more-attractive environment.
Zoo expansion would require more money than admission fees, a bond issue and city funding provided. So Hanna and Dodge took their show on the road to persuade wealthy businesspeople and government officials to invest in the zoo.
A full-grown camel visited Mayor Tom Moody in 1982, while Mayor Dana G. Rinehart encountered a pygmy hippopotamus in his office in 1985. Lion cubs were common visitors to the offices of movers and shakers around town.
Hanna persuaded businessman John H. McConnell to donate $50,000 to create an exhibit that allowed the gorillas to go outside. That opened in 1979, and, as Hanna tells it, "When the gorillas came out, the attendance came up."
Hanna also worked to publicize the zoo in any way he could think of to pump up attendance and bring in more money.
He started a television show, "Hanna's Ark", in 1981 that ran locally for two years.
He hired one of the Great Wallendas to cross a high wire over the zoo's tigers in 1982, which attracted a huge crowd along with the wrath of zoo organizations nationwide. They thought he was trivializing and endangering tigers.
In 1983, he appeared on "Good Morning America" for the first time, showing off twin gorillas born at the zoo.
"People would tell us, 'You can't do that' or 'That's not going to work,'??" Hanna recalled. "We had to do anything we could to get people here."
Patty Peters, who started at the zoo a year after Hanna arrived and is now a vice president, described the period as "like the wild, wild West."
As Hanna's star power grew, so did the zoo's. The original 10-year master plan was revamped as the zoo acquired more acreage.
Most of the exhibits were west of Riverside Drive when Hanna arrived. Since then, the area east of Riverside has become home to a water park as well as exhibits for North American and Asian animals and, most recently, polar and brown bears.
Exhibits are built to look like natural animal environments, to tell the story of how animals are disappearing in the wild and to encourage visitors to take action to help endangered species.
In May, Safari Africa is to open, giving giraffes, lions, monkeys and other animals a 43-acre home.
Only a few buildings from 1978 — the reptile home is one — remain at the zoo's western edge. That area has been transformed over three decades to include a salt-water aquarium; manatee building; Australia exhibit; and an Africa area with bonobos, gorillas, monkeys and leopards.
Jim Maddy, president and CEO of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, said Hanna has been a leader in the transformation that zoos have undergone in the past three decades.
"Over the arc of Jack's tenure at the Columbus Zoo, the entire science that underlies modern zoological practice has been transformed," Maddy said. "The Columbus Zoo under Jack's leadership is a model of progressive zoological practice."
Hanna assumed the title of emeritus zoo director in 1992 so he could concentrate on his television shows and appearances and on speeches and presentations.
He said he has had many good job offers over the years but seriously considered leaving only once — in 1983, when a new zoo was being developed in a beautiful area of Florida.
"But Mel Dodge kept saying, 'Stay here. We're going to make this the best zoo in the country,'??" Hanna recalled.
The zoo has snagged that title from several organizations in recent years. It has expanded to more than 500 acres and attracts as many as 2.3 million visitors a year.
Hanna, 66, is still very much a part of the zoo. His participation at zoo events helps pump up attendance, and he always attracts a crowd during his frequent visits.
He said he has no plans to retire, but he and others have been discussing ways to maintain the zoo's prominence when that day arrives.
"The zoo has let me live a dream of being a zookeeper," Hanna said. "Suzi and I owe a great deal to the city of Columbus and the zoo. We know how lucky we are to be here."