Jack Hanna, the affable zookeeper and television fixture who has brought a panoply of exotic animals into Americans’ living rooms, from an Andean c
Jack Hanna, the affable zookeeper and television fixture who has brought a panoply of exotic animals into Americans’ living rooms, from an Andean condor to a wolverine, has dementia and will retire from public life, his family said.
In a letter shared Wednesday on social media, the family of the 74-year-old Mr. Hanna said that he had developed what is believed to be Alzheimer’s disease and that his condition had deteriorated rapidly in the past few months.
“Sadly, Dad is no longer able to participate in public life as he used to, where people all over the world watched, learned and laughed alongside him,” Mr. Hanna’s three daughters said in the letter.
Last year, the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in Ohio announced that Mr. Hanna would retire from his leadership role there after 42 years as director and director emeritus.
Beyond the zoo, Jungle Jack Hanna, as he is known, has become a mainstay on television, from hosting his own Emmy-winning daytime series to his regular appearances on shows like the “Late Show” with David Letterman and “Good Morning America.”
In his trademark khaki clothes and leather outback hat, Mr. Hanna was accompanied on the shows by a cast of creatures, from the curious to the cuddlesome, to which he gave top billing. Many of the encounters left the show’s hosts squeamish, particularly Mr. Letterman, who The Columbus Dispatch reported had booked Mr. Hanna more than 100 times on his show over 30 years.
The ensemble of animals appearing with Mr. Hanna on Mr. Letterman’s show included a camel, penguins, electric eels, a leopard and a cobra.
“As usual, in preparation for his visit tonight, I’m using a tick shampoo,” Mr. Letterman joked while introducing Mr. Hanna on his show in September 1998.
Mr. Hanna’s first appearance on Mr. Letterman’s show was in 1985, according to The Dispatch. They went on to develop a repartee with one another, with Mr. Hanna often exchanging quips with the late-night television legend and plopping wild animals down on Mr. Letterman’s desk.
“He has spent his life connecting people and wildlife because he has always believed that having people see and experience animals is key to engaging them in more impactful conservation efforts,” Mr. Hanna’s daughters said. “He’s always said, ‘You have to touch the heart to teach the mind.’”
The announcement by Mr. Hanna’s family on Wednesday touched off an outpouring of tributes.
Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio said on Twitter that he and his wife, Fran, were saddened to learn of Mr. Hanna’s diagnosis.
“Over the years, Fran and I have had the opportunity to take our kids and grandkids to the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium and The Wilds,” Mr. DeWine wrote. “When we were there with Jack, we were so fortunate to experience his passion for animals and the natural world.”
The Alzheimer’s Association commended Mr. Hanna’s family on Twitter for its disclosure.
“We are grateful to Jack Hanna and his family for bravely sharing his dementia diagnosis, letting other families facing Alzheimer’s and other dementia know they are not alone,” the association said.
Mr. Hanna’s first job, at age 11, was working for a veterinarian in his native Knoxville, Tenn., which is where he developed his love and respect for animals, according to a biography on his website. He opened a pet shop in Knoxville with his wife, Suzi, and became a director of a small zoo in Sanford, Fla., in 1973, his biography said.
It was early on that Mr. Hanna also learned of the dangers that wild animals can pose to people.
In the early 1970s, a 3-year-old boy lost an arm when he was mauled by a lion at Mr. Hanna’s property in Tennessee, according to The Dispatch.
“That lives with me every single day,” Mr. Hanna told the newspaper in a video posted in 2018.
Mr. Hanna became the director of the Columbus Zoo in 1978 and director emeritus in 1992. He has written 15 books, according to the zoo, which named a an immersive exhibit after Mr. Hanna and a fund after Mr. Hanna and his wife.
Mr. Hanna’s family said he had engaged with millions of people through his television and media appearances over the years.
“This allowed him to bring an unparalleled level of awareness to the importance of global conservation given the unrelenting pressures on the natural environment,” his family said.
Mr. Hanna’s daughters said that their father had not lost his sense of humor and that his style hadn’t changed.
“And yes,” they said, “he still wears his khakis at home.”