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Columbus Zoo Workers Mourn Loss of Director Jeff Swanagan

Shock still hasn't worn off at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium where leaders and employees mourn the death of their leader - Jeff Swanagan. Swanagan died Sunday night of an apparent heart attack.

"We will treasure his legacy," said the zoo's board of director's president Connie Woodburn.

Woodburn, whose eyes teared up at moments during the news conference, said it will be business as usual at the zoo even as employees grieve over the loss of their Director Jeff Swanagan.

"The best way for all of us to honor Jeff's memory is to continue to make sure that each visitor that comes through these gates has the best experience possible," she said.

Swanagan, who was 51 years old, came to the Columbus Zoo a year ago from the Georgia Aquarium.

Swanagan was passionate about the zoo and by some was considered a visionary. In an interview with WOSU just last month, he talked about a project he was working on: making the zoo and aquarium a destination by building a hotel on site.

That kind of project could be considered challenging but Swanagan made it easy to envision just in how he described it.

"Imagine where you're staying in a four star type facility with great amenities and great comfort, but when you have your coffee and tea on the porch, the great migration is happening in front of you. I've experienced that, and I'd like to bring that type of experience here," Swanagan said in May.

Swanagan first worked at the Columbus Zoo in 1978 when director emeritus Jack Hanna hired him. Hanna said the death of Swanagan is like losing a son. But Hanna said he is committed to carrying out his friend's mission including the exploration of building a hotel at the zoo.

"The vision he had was beyond anything I've ever witnessed in the zoo and I've been doing this for 41 years. You sit down with him and his mind wasn't here, when you're talking to him you think he's listening but his mind is going out there a year or two in advance. I never met anybody like this. I mean he had things that would blow your mind," Hanna said.

Hanna did not elaborate on the other ideas Swanagan planned for the zoo because Hanna hopes to see them come to fruition.

Swanagan leaves behind a wife and seven children.