Tragic Details About Jack Hanna

This article references suicide.

If a kid grew up in America fascinated with animals — particularly exotic, jungle animals like lions, tigers, or bears — they likely have Jack Hanna to thank for sparking, fostering, and growing that interest in all creatures great and imposing. For decades, Hanna — forever clad in a khaki uniform topped with a bushman’s hat — was television’s go-to guy for animal facts, animal stories, and animal appearances. He appeared numerous times on various talk shows (he was a favorite on David Letterman’s talk shows), often with an adorable baby animal in tow. 

At least, that’s where he was when he wasn’t in some far-flung locale studying, filming, or caring for animals for his multiple long-running, youth-oriented TV series, like “Jack Hanna’s Animal Adventures,” “Jack Hanna’s Into the Wild,” and “Jack Hanna’s Wild Countdown.” Not bad for a guy whose day job was the director and public face of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. Hanna brought a lot of joy and knowledge to a lot of people, all the while suffering through a lot of unpleasantness. Here’s a look into the often sad and bewildering offscreen life of Jack Hanna.

A child was mauled at Jack Hanna's animal sanctuary

One of Jack Hanna’s first public ventures with animals was a place called Hanna’s Ark, an animal sanctuary on his family’s farm outside his hometown of Knoxville, Tennessee, open to visitors. According to the AP (via The Jackson Sun), Hanna used the facility to house many rare and exotic animals that he felt faced the threat of extinction. As he said on “Larry King Live” decades later, “I had animals for zoos around the country I took care of for them.”

In July 1972, the AP reported a family friend brought her three-year-old son to Hanna’s Ark, eager to show him some animals, including a two-year-old lion. The toddler reportedly circumvented a protective fence around the lion’s habitat and then stuck his fingers through the cage, prompting the large cat to bite down and with tremendous and quick force, remove the arm at the elbow. “And I had to go get the arm, and it wasn’t able to be put back on the young man,” Hanna told King.

The family of the injured child sued Hanna. According to The Columbus Dispatch, they eventually settled. According to The Columbus Dispatch, Hanna and his family picked up and moved to Florida following the incident. He also parted ways with most of the animals at Hanna’s Ark. 

Jack Hanna has witnessed multiple animal-related casualties

Jack Hanna doesn’t wish only to spread information about animals and a love of nature and wildlife. Throughout his decades as an educator and TV host, he aimed to provide a fuller understanding of wild animals, that some creatures can and will maim, maul, or kill — if suitably provoked. On a 2004 episode of “Larry King Live,” he likened a wild animal to a “loaded gun” and that “it can go off at any time.” It’s a lesson that Hanna has unfortunately learned more than once.

While filming in Namibia in April 2003, Hanna’s local guide decided to take a swim in a small pond. An unseen crocodile, lurking underwater, attacked. “Got his chest and grabbed his chest,” Hanna recalled to King, adding that the first crocodile then swam in and tore off the man’s arm in a “split second.” Later that year, while shooting in Tanzania, Hanna saw a crocodile attack a teenager in a river. “Croc came up out of nowhere, took him down, and he was gone, dead,” Hanna explained.

Jack Hanna was associated with a zoo where the animals killed a person

In 2011, a Zanesville, Ohio resident named Terry Thompson died by suicide after he released 50 exotic animals from his farm, according to NBC News. According to GQ, Thompson unleashed “18 tigers, 17 lions, 8 bears, 3 cougars, 2 wolves, 1 baboon, [and] 1 macaque.” (The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported that Thompson intended to allow his animals to eat his body after he died.) The incident would be referred to as the Zanesville massacre. 

As GQ noted, Jack Hanna was called in. Zanesville sits about 50 miles from the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, where Jack Hanna was serving as director emeritus at the time, and as the magazine put it, is “a trusted animal advocate.” According to WBNS, he agonizingly approved the decision to kill the freed wild animals upon sight. Of the 50 animals, the deaths of 49, mostly via police gunshot, were confirmed. (The fiftieth creature, a macaque, is presumed to have been killed by one of the other animals, according to GQ.) “That was the most difficult thing that has happened in my entire career,” Hanna told WBNS. “Here I am saving animals all my life, and now having to put the animals down. Killing upsets me.”

If you or anyone you know is having suicidal thoughts, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline​ at​ 1-800-273-TALK (8255)​.

Jack Hanna's daughter, Julie, had leukemia at a young age

According to his official website, Jack Hanna and his wife, Suzi Hanna, raised three daughters together. The youngest, Julie Hanna, worked at the Columbus Zoo alongside her father, serving as an animal educator. 

At an early age, Julie, and thereby the rest of the family, faced a traumatic and frightening medical event. According to Denison Magazine, two-year-old Julie was diagnosed with leukemia after a fever landed her in the hospital. While waiting for her results, Julie developed pneumonia and a staph infection, and the family rushed her to another hospital. Julie stayed in a hospital isolation unit for two months and she would go on to receive various treatments for four years.

Part of the reason Jack took a job as the director of the Columbus Zoo in Ohio was because the Columbus Children’s Hospital offered exemplary care, according to WBNS. 

Julie Hanna suffered health problems well into adulthood

After years of intensive treatments, Julie Hanna survived a bout with childhood leukemia, but she would suffer through more physical and health problems into adulthood. In 1995, according to Denison Magazine, college sophomore Julie “began waking early in the morning, throwing up, and feeling very tired.” The doctors she spoke with weren’t too concerned by the symptoms, but the symptoms did not go away. So, Jack Hanna reached out to his daughter’s childhood oncologist — and that move changed her life.

The oncologist validated the family’s concerns. According to Denison Magazine, “When the doctor heard her symptoms, he immediately suspected cranial pressure and ordered CAT scans and MRIs.” They found “a massive tumor” that while benign, needed to be removed immediately. The complicated and precarious operation was a success. In 2012, Julie once more underwent surgery, according to WBNS, to remove another benign brain tumor that may have been linked to radiation. “Back then, that’s how they treated leukemia,” Hanna said of his and Suzi Hanna’s youngest’s cancer treatment. “That’s no longer done whatsoever, but we have our daughter.” 

Jack has not let go of his optimism. “I want to be happy all the time,” he told WBNS in 2012. “I don’t know how to be any other way. I try to keep it in a lot but you do cry, like when they took her from us before her surgery.”

Jack Hanna has had a lot of health issues

Jack Hanna has suffered from and survived a rapid succession of health problems (and arduous solutions) in the 21st century. While continuing with a packed schedule of live appearances and TV dates showing off wild animals and rattling off facts about them, he also “quietly endured multiple back surgeries,” according to The Columbus Dispatch. Additionally, Jack has had two knee operations and in 2018, he suffered from a cardiac event. “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,” the outlet noted.

Following one of his two knee replacement surgeries, he let his Facebook followers know it “was a lot rougher than [he] expected” and thanked them for their support. He continued, “Now that it has been a little more than a week since knee replacement surgery, I’m knee-deep (haha) in rehab to insure a full recovery.”

Alzheimer's forced Jack Hanna into retirement

Jack Hanna is in his early 70s now, which is a natural and common time for a person to start slowing down personally and professionally. While he left his position as director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium in 1992, he remained the organization’s spokesperson (and an animal-toting media gadfly) until officially retiring from his duties in June 2020, according to The Columbus Dispatch. In April 2021, the Hanna family released a statement (via PRNewswire) on behalf of Jack Hanna to announce that the longtime teacher, animal advocate, and media personality would immediately step back from the public eye. 

“Doctors have diagnosed our dad, Jack Hanna, with dementia, now believed to be Alzheimer’s disease,” the family’s statement read, noting that the wildlife expert’s mental condition to greatly deteriorate “much faster in the last few months than any of us could have anticipated.” And so, the small screen star would no longer be physically able to make personal and TV appearances. “Sadly, Dad is no longer able to participate in public as he used to, where people all over the world watched, learned and laughed alongside him,” the Hannas said. 

“While Dad’s health has deteriorated quickly, we can assure you that his great sense of humor continues to shine through,” his family shared. “And yes – he still wears his khakis at home.”

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