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Jack Hanna, Former Columbus Zoo Director, Diagnosed With Dementia

Jack Hanna, right, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and Make-A-Wish child Anna, 11, watch a polar bear dive for fish during her day as a zookeeper Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 in Columbus.
Jay LaPrete
/
AP for Macys
Jack Hanna, right, director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, and Make-A-Wish child Anna, 11, watch a polar bear dive for fish during her day as a zookeeper Friday, Dec. 14, 2012 in Columbus.

Zoologist and former Columbus Zoo director Jack Hanna has been diagnosed with dementia and may have Alzheimer’s, his family announced Wednesday.

In a letter shared on social media, Hanna's family says that the 74-year-old's condition progressed faster than they’d expected over the last few months.

"While Dad's health has deteriorated quickly, we can assure you that his great sense of humor continues to shine through," the letter reads. "And yes — he still wears his khakis at home."

Hanna took the role of Columbus Zoo and Aquarium director in 1978 and served for 14 years. He retired in December after serving as director emeritus for more than two decades and made regular national TV appearances throughout his career.

Hanna's family said he advocated for improving wildlife habitats and connecting the community with animals. According to a timeline on the Columbus Zoo website, when Hanna arrived in Central Ohio, the zoo’s lowland gorillas had never been outdoors.

“In the late 70’s, this was the normal practice, but the Zoo staff knew these animals deserved much better,” the site says. “In 1979, the gracious support of John H. McConnell and Worthington Industries transformed the gorillas’ habitat and it represented a turning point for the Zoo — the community and other zoos took notice!”

As his reputation as an educator and animal-to-community connector grew, Hanna made his first network television appearance in 1983 on Good Morning America. He would later head his own weekly TV shows — Jack Hanna's Into the Wild, Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures and Jack Hanna's Wild Countdown.

Hanna also started the annual zoo lights show Wildlights at the Zoo! in 1988. In its first year, Wildlights featured 120,000 lights. That number has grown to more than 3,000,000 shimmering LED lights showcased yearly.

"Even though Dad is no longer able to travel and work in the same way, we know that his infectious enthusiasm has touched many hearts and will continue to be his legacy," the letter says.

Hanna’s family asked for privacy in their statement, noting the desire to honor COVID-19 restrictions.