Jack Hanna has experienced fascinating adventures as well as hard times
SCRANTON, Pa. — As he chatted with the desk clerk working the hotel graveyard shift, the man in the khaki clothes and leather Outback hat wonders aloud if the cheetah sleeping in room 116 just might escape.
The young clerk's eyes widen as Jack Hanna tells him that cheetahs can run more than 70 mph, and they like to go for the throat.
Just after sunrise when Hanna, still wiping the crust out of his brown eyes, returns to the lobby, the hotel worker is waiting for him. The only person who hasn't recognized Hanna in two days says he was terrified half the night until his supervisor assured him that he had fallen prey to one of Hanna's playful jokes.
(There really is a cheetah sleeping in room 116, but he's secure.)
"You got me good, Mr. Hanna," says the clerk as one of the world's most famous animal ambassadors put his arm around him for a selfie.
Hanna turns his attention to the growing crowd of fans who want an autograph.
One of the three women who work for Hanna and save him from himself multiple times a day, hands him a cellphone.
“You have to take this call,” she says.
Hanna ignores the request and continues signing autographs for the adoring fans who have transformed the hotel's continental breakfast room into a red-carpet event. John “Jack” Hanna was born and raised on a farm in Knoxville, Tennessee, and now travels 220 days a year. He has lost track of where he is and what’s ahead for the day.
“Jack, it’s Saturday. You are in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and you have a show to do this afternoon,” she says, holding the phone out. “This is your producer, you have to talk to him.”
The producer of Hanna’s popular “Jack Hanna's Into the Wild” television show tells him he has won another Emmy award. It’s Hanna’s fifth.
“Hot dog!” Hanna yells.
“And congratulations,” he tells the producer.
He never says another word about the news that would have had most pouring champagne.
“Now what are we doing again today?” Hanna asks, laughing, knowing the eye roll and scolding are coming.
Hanna is most known for his love of animals, but it's his genuine ability to connect with people from any culture that might be his true legacy.
Forty years ago, Hanna took over a small, dilapidated zoo in Columbus that many in the city didn't even know existed. He painted bathrooms, shoveled animal waste, rebuilt the morale of his workers and established a network of generous donors. He eventually transformed the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium — which drew 2.3 million visitors last year — into one of the world's best.
Now 71, Hanna is celebrating his 40th anniversary at the zoo as one of the most recognizable animal ambassadors and leaders in wildlife conservation.
"Jack really put Columbus, Ohio, on the map," said Tom Stalf, president and CEO of the Columbus Zoo. "There are many animals we deal with every day that are highly endangered. If it wasn't for Jack’s commitment to tell their story, to get people to connect with those animals, I promise you, the animals we have around this globe wouldn't be as healthy as they are today."
While Stalf runs the zoo's daily operations back in Columbus, Hanna serves as its global rock star on trips such as this.
Hanna never considered himself old until a couple of months ago, when he pulled out his pill case on another trip and in it were vitamins and an assortment of other pills. He says it right in this moment to everybody and nobody, poking fun at himself for having to ask where he even is.
But the man once named People Magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful” people is in perpetual motion. He struggles to sleep every night. He can’t sit for long in a meeting.
The swarm of admirers finally dwindles just in time for Hanna to watch a few minutes of his own TV show, something he hasn’t done in years. But he’s soon distracted by an adorable little boy who wants to shake the hand of the man he, too, is watching on TV. Hanna signs another one of the autograph cards he carries to spare people from grabbing paper out of the trash or having him sign their chests.
This is the Hanna that most people know.
The funny, charming, lovable animal lover. The champion for charitable causes who has raised millions for wildlife conservation, humanitarian efforts and children’s organizations. The television personality who playfully harassed David Letterman with his animals for decades and introduced millions to faraway animal kingdoms.
Many people know Hanna's impulsive side. As a college freshman, he brought a donkey to campus. He once who asked if his wife, Suzi, if she would breastfeed a baby chimpanzee. And as a new zoo director, he walked a camel inside the Ohio Statehouse to meet a governor who had no idea Hanna or the camel was coming.
Then there is the Hanna many don’t know.
The desperate father who sacrificed and risked everything to save his little girl. The man attacked on social media as the villain for defending Sea World on a national stage and, in another instance, being blamed in the media for not saving 48 exotic animals killed by authorities after they escaped near Zanesville.
IN THE SERIES:
The father of three daughters who has six grandchildren has quietly endured multiple back surgeries, two knee replacements and the insertion of a pacemaker earlier this year after some heart trouble. (Hanna is quick to say the heart episode that prompted the pacemaker wasn’t a heart attack and he was back to work five days later. But he does miss his chest hair.)
“People see the guy on TV with the beautiful family and amazing job that takes me around the world and think my life has been a dream,” Hanna says. “And don’t get me wrong — I have had an amazing life. But we have had our share of real hard times. But it was those hard, difficult things that always seem to lead us to something better.”
His little girl screamed in pain behind the hospital’s glass wall, and there is nothing Hanna could do but pray. He tried to watch as doctors insert a large needle into 2-year-old Julie’s spine as his wife, Suzi, helped the doctors hold her down.
Julie had a 106-degree fever when she arrived and is fighting for her life at St. Jude Children's Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
Julie was placed on a floor with 11 other children, and each family drew a card to see what level of experimental radiation their child will receive. The Hannas drew a “5” which meant Julie would receive the most severe treatment they offered at that time in 1977.
It saved her life. Only one other child on her floor survived.
But Julie remained at St. Jude for months and was far from out of danger. The family needed to find a children’s hospital that could provide her the long-term care she needed, and there were only a few in the country. Columbus had one of them.
Jack received a call from a good friend Suzi had made through the pet shop they owned in Knoxville. The friend's sister was a judge in Columbus, and she had seen a newspaper ad for a zookeeper.
Within weeks of that 1978 call, Jack was hired as the Columbus Zoo’s new director.
“If it wasn’t for them seeing that ad, we probably don’t end up in Columbus,” Suzi said. “Doctors thought Julie was going to die. And not only did we still have our daughter, we got a new start in life. There are so many little things that could have taken us in a different direction.”
Julie will be eternally grateful for the doctors at St. Jude, but the primitive radiation has caused her a lifetime of tumors, surgeries, doctor’s appointments and chronic pain.
While Julie was in college, doctors at Nationwide Children’s Hospital discovered a tumor almost the size of a baseball on her brain.
Again, the family’s prayers were answered and Julie survivied.
About a year into her recovery, Julie was far more concerned about saving something else than herself. She met an infant snow leopard named Satcha at her dad’s zoo. The vets were planning on euthanizing the snow leopard because its chest wall couldn’t separate its heart and lungs.
“Daddy, Daddy, you can’t let them do this,” Julie frantically said. “You can’t let them put him down.”
Jack told the zoo vets to spare the animal and his daughter's feelings.
She even took the leopard to the same doctors who were treating her at Nationwide Children’s Hospital, and together, they saved him.
Satcha lived for years and was able to breed other snow leopards, which are among the rarest cats in the world.
“I still have memories of being behind that glass wall at St. Jude but I didn’t really understand my parents’ pain until I was trying to save Sasha,” said Julie, now, 43, who has cared for hundreds of young animals at the Columbus Zoo. “I don’t have children of my own but I do feel like a mother when I am taking care of an animal I love. It makes everything worth it.”
A soaring balloon
Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” vibrates through the car stereo as Jack Hanna waves his arms, wiggles in his seat and attempts a dance he has planned for all of America.
"Dancing with the Stars" called Hanna a couple of years ago and inquired about him being on the show. It didn’t work out due to Hanna’s packed schedule.
Hanna still would like to do the show someday.
One of Hanna’s staffers, who is juggling the driving, directions and logistics for that day’s animal show in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, reminds Hanna that his knees are bad, and he can’t dance.
Hanna turns up the music even louder and shares his vision for the dance: He will be dressed in green leaves like Tarzan, and he will swing on a vine across the stage over live alligators to Gaye’s timeless song.
“I got it all planned out,” laughed Hanna. “I’m just going to give people what they want.”
That’s been Hanna’s PT Barnum-like philosophy ever since he was hired to run the Columbus Zoo in 1978 by Mel Dodge, then the director of the Columbus Recreation and Parks Department. Hanna once hired a guy called “The Great Zucchini” to shoot himself out of a cannon and another to walk across a wire over the tiger enclosure. He appeared on ABC's "Good Morning America" after the twin gorillas at the zoo were the first to be born in the western hemisphere. He drove his animals to schools all over the city, or wherever he could find a crowd of children. He has been the host of three national television shows — “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures,” “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild,” and “Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown,” which still air today.
But his tenure also included the far-less glamorous work of fixing a dilapidated zoo.
He didn’t take a day off, not even Christmas, for years and the Hanna family would spend Sundays after church picking up trash at the zoo.
But Hanna was also smart enough to establish relationships with city's power brokers.
He won’t name names. There are too many friends and donors to risk leaving someone out. Few have mastered the win-win business relationship more than Hanna.
But he gives a lot of credit to his friend and mentor Dodge, who had a love for animals almost as big as Hanna. Over a 10-year period, Dodge and his family raised eight lions, two cheetahs and a Siberian tiger in their Columbus home. Hanna was actually close to leaving the Columbus Zoo in 1985 for a job in Miami, but his relationship with Dodge was a big reason he stayed.
Dodge died in 1991. But his wife, Norma, now 93, still adores the man who became her husband’s most famous hire.
“I remember Mel telling me about Jack hiring the guy who was going to walk above the tigers and then telling me if something went wrong he wasn’t going to shoot the tigers,” Norma said, laughing. “Mel knew he had something special in Jack. Jack was a balloon who soared and soared with his big ideas, but Mel was the line who kept him grounded.”
The day Norma buried her husband, she opened a letter from Hanna on her way to the cemetery. It said that Mel wanted his animals to be part of his funeral. When Norma arrived at the cemetery, Hanna was waiting with Mel’s two favorite lions.
“Jack has always known how to put on a show,” said Norma, who still laughs about that day and still appreciates that Suzi was at her home the day Mel died. “Mel would be so proud of what Jack has done with the zoo, and more importantly, how he has connected the love between those animals and people.”
'It was my fault'
The crowd gathered between holes at the Memorial Tournament in Dublin have been baking in the hot sun just to get a glimpse of one of the world’s most famous people.
But when iconic golfer Tiger Woods crosses directly in front of Jack Hanna, more heads turn toward the man in khaki.
“Look, Mommy — Jungle Jack!” a boy exclaims.
The moment immediately takes Hanna back to a harrowing day in the early 1970s and a tragic incident with a lion.
“It was my fault,” Hanna said. “I live with it being my fault every day. I prayed for him for all those years not knowing whether losing his arm impacted his life.”
It was July 1972 in Knoxville, Tennessee, on part of his dad’s property known as Hanna’s Ark where he housed lions, tigers and a few other exotic animals — some that he helped raise for the Knoxville Zoo. It was licensed and not open to the public.
On this day, a mother and boy who lived nearby stopped to see the animals while Jack was away. Somehow, the boy made it through two barriers and reached toward the lion. Daisy — Hanna’s favorite — bit off the boy’s left arm.
When Hanna arrived to his property, Matthew Ramsbottom was lying on the ground, covered in a bloody sheet. State Troopers were waiting for Hanna to retrieve the boy’s limb.
Hanna climbed over the fence and told Daisy to sit. The arm was still fully intact. Hanna handed it to paramedics.
Suzi and Jack went to the hospital that night to show the family their remorse for the accident. They didn’t stay long and never got a chance to see the boy.
Doctors couldn’t reattach the boy’s arm. The boy’s family filed a lawsuit against Hanna, which was settled.
IN THE SERIES:
For days, Hanna locked himself in his room. He refused to talk to anyone, not even Suzi or his dad. The then 25-year-old Hanna decided to get rid of all of the animals, including Daisy, who was taken to a local zoo instead of being put down. He moved his family out of Knoxville, where even people at the grocery store whispered about his lion hurting a child.
Jack considered giving up his dream to become a zookeeper until a doctor close to the Hanna family visited. He told him his own story about how years earlier, he had run over a young girl with his car, and he, too, wanted life to be over following the accident.
“The doctor saved me with that story," Hanna said.
Matthew Ramsbottom, the boy Hanna still thinks about today, died in 2010 at age 41.
But the loss of his arm did not hold him back in life, according to his younger brother Seth Ramsbottom, who lives in Knoxville.
Matthew inspired others his entire life by playing soccer, football and racing mountain bikes with one arm, Seth said. He became a chef and moved to Wyoming to pursue his outdoor passions, including snowboarding.
Seth said he never spoke to his older brother about how he lost his arm, and his family never talked about the incident. It wasn’t until about six years ago — after Matthew had died — that Seth’s dad talked to him about that day. And even in that conversation, Seth said, there was no hatred or resentment toward Hanna.
“I have never heard anyone in my family say one bad word about Jack Hanna, ever,” Seth said. “My brother’s legacy is being an inspiring, fun-loving guy who other people wanted to be around. He never let his life be defined by losing an arm. Hell, I’ve watched Jack Hanna’s show over the years. It was an accident."
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For better or worse
Suzi says she accepted long ago that Jack has two wives — herself and the Columbus Zoo.
Their romance began at Muskingum University, where the overweight country boy with big glasses charmed the beautiful cheerleader from New Jersey with his relentless sense of humor.
They married in 1968 after Jack had just graduated and Suzi had one semester left. On their wedding night, Jack went out to get some burgers but ran into college buddies and had beers until 2:30 a.m.
“No one got pregnant that night,” Jack laughs.
It only got worse over the next six days, culminating with Suzi climbing into the back seat of the car and not speaking to her new husband for hours, wondering whether she had made a mistake.
Jack made things right. Their first daughter, Kathaleen, 48, who now lives in England with her husband and two children, was born nine months and nine days after their wedding. Next came Suzanne, 45, who now lives in Cincinnati with her husband and four children. And then came Julie, who lives in Dublin.
Suzi never complained when Jack would bring home a new lion, chimpanzee, goat, dog or other animal. She, too, would feed them and bathe them just like any other member of their family.
It is their bond over God, their daughters and animals that always connected the two.
It was Suzi who was in the stands at every tennis match and football game while the girls were cheerleading and growing up in Dublin schools. Jack was working at the zoo or on the road. She never resented that. The payoff for their sacrifices was unforgettable trips around the world, including many to see the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. Suzi now also joins Jack on his travels to film his TV show as a co-host.
When they aren’t on the road they split their time throughout the year at the zoo, a condo in Florida and a cabin in northwest Montana, where they enjoy hiking in Glacier National Park.
Suzi looked down at their wedding picture, put her hand to her heart and then burst out laughing. Jack, she said, has come a long way since that day — and the ensuing Valentine’s Day, when he failed to get her so much as a card.
“I’m sorry, Sue,” Jack said.
“Jack is my best friend, for better or worse,” Suzi said. “I’ve been blessed. Jack is a very caring, kind, compassionate person. That certainly doesn’t mean we don’t have disagreements.”
Suzi has proven she is Jack's biggest fan and supporter.
She had seen the toll the latest round of contract negotiations with the zoo had taken on her husband a couple of years ago. It had dragged on for a long time, but she didn’t think it would ever reach the point where her family would consider leaving Columbus — until now.
“Sue that’s it, we are out of here,” Jack told his wife.
The dispute with a small group of board members wasn’t about money for Hanna. It was about feeling that his years of devotion weren’t being valued. Hanna said the biggest issue was the board's desire to place conditions on how he could help other zoos. Jack had always helped other zoos.
There was one final meeting to work things out, and Jack asked Suzi to speak on his behalf. She was hesitant to go, but delivered a speech that helped changed their destiny.
Sue eloquently reminded those in the room of all the relationships that Jack had built through the years and how much love and passion her family had invested in the zoo. But if they wanted to put restraints on Jack they were prepared to move on to whatever journey God had planned for them.
After that meeting, things got better.
Craig Marshall, chairman of the Columbus Zoo Board of Directors, didn’t comment on the details of contract talks or the potentially losing Hanna, but said the board’s relationship is strong and will remain that way.
IN THE SERIES:
“The board’s respect for Jack is deep and we are committed to celebrating his legacy and honoring what he has done in Columbus and around the globe,” Marshall said. “We have a unique partnership that is allowing future generations to enjoy these beautiful (animals) in the days, months and years to come.”
For Jack, seeing his wife support him in that way was a defining moment in what will be 50 years of marriage this December.
“I’d be nothing without Sue,” Jack said. “That speech is something I'll never forget. I wouldn’t have the life and family I have or even function to be honest. I still don’t know how I got her.”
Love what you do
Jack hasn’t taken a bite of his shrimp or a sip of his Corona at the end of another 14-hour day. The servers, hostess, manager, bus boys, bartenders and patrons inside the Ruby Tuesday in Scranton all want a piece of the gracious but weary Hanna.
His show in Wilkes-Barre that day went well, drawing more than 1,000 people who were awed by the cheetah, fell in love with the penguin and ogled several other animals traveling with Hanna. But he, of course, was the star attraction, signing autographs for more than an hour and encouraging them all to visit the Columbus Zoo.
He is finally ready to take a bite when a teary-eyed woman, the most polite of anyone to approach him in two days, says she wants nothing but to thank him. Behind her, a teenage boy in a wheelchair pushes himself quickly around the corner and out of sight.
It’s her son, who worships Hanna and wants to be a zookeeper someday because of him.
Hanna’s dinner goes cold as he finds the boy from Tennessee, talks with him about animals for five minutes and then texts someone he knows to try to help him get an internship at his local zoo.
After finally taking a couple of bites, Hanna quietly goes back into the restaurant kitchen to sign autographs for the cooks.
“I never wanted the TV stuff or this famous thing,” Hanna said. “I try to treat everyone I meet in a way that would make my dad proud. ‘Be humble, Jack,’ — that’s what he would tell me.”
Hanna says that at times he can be stubborn, demanding and sometimes a pain in the butt on the road, in his office or at home.
He's more than willing to talk about his shortcomings.
He once picked up a fumble playing high school football and ran to the end zone — only to discover he ran the wrong way and scored for the other team.
When he and Suzi first moved to Columbus and he was speaking at an event, he overheard people at a table next to him and Suzi question whether the new zoo director and his wife smelled bad.
It’s this folksy nature — part showman, part aw-shucks small-town guy — that has gotten him invitations to the White House and Buckingham Palace. One of his favorite celebrity friends is actress Betty White, an animal advocate. She visited Hanna in the first year he took over the Columbus Zoo and they remain friends.
In 2014, just before the zoo opened its Heart of Africa area, White returned to Columbus. She sat alone for a while and marveled at all the African animals roaming the 43 acres Hanna helped envision.
She cried and told Hanna that she had now been to Africa.
“The zoo world and the animal word at large are far better off for having Jack in them,” said White, now 96, in a written statement. “And let’s face it ... he just keeps getting better looking, so I hope he’s around for a long, long time!”
Another person whom Hanna considers a good friend is Jack Nicklaus. He recently met up with Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, at the Memorial Tournament and they spent time sharing old stories. Their favorite was the time Nicklaus missed the cut at his own tournament and went to the zoo with his family. A gorilla threw a pile of poop into his chest.
There were lots of laughs until Nicklaus turned serious.
“Think about all the good this guy has done for the world,” Nicklaus said.
Hanna has only two regrets — missing the days he spent away from his daughters when they were growing up and that his dad, Ross, who died at 74, didn’t have a chance to see his achievements.
When his time comes, Hanna wants to be cremated and have his ashes buried at the Columbus Zoo.
But until that day, Hanna will continue his relentless pursuit to follow advice his dad gave him on that farm in Tennessee.
“Love what you do and work hard,’ ” Hanna said. “And I think I’ve done that with my life.”