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Celebrity zookeeper Jack Hanna diagnosed with dementia

| April 7, 2021 11:55 AM

COLUMBUS, Ohio (AP) — Celebrity zookeeper and animal TV show host Jack Hanna, who has had a big presence in the Flathead Valley and the Bigfork community where he and his wife Suzi have lived on a ranch for many years, has been diagnosed with dementia and will retire from public life, his family said.

In a news release Wednesday, his family added that it's believed he now has Alzheimer's disease that has quickly progressed in the last few months.

The 74-year-old Hanna was director of the Columbus Zoo from 1978 to 1992 and still serves as its director emeritus.

“Dad advocated for improved wildlife habitats and focused on connecting the community with animals,” the statement signed by his three daughters said. Hanna continued to be a spokesperson for the Ohio zoo until he retired in 2020.

Hanna is also well-known for his live animal demonstrations on talk shows hosted by Johnny Carson, David Letterman and James Corden, increasing the profile of the Columbus Zoo and leading to massive attendance increases over the years.

Hanna tapped into his celebrity status to help Flathead and Montana causes as well. He and his wife hosted the Grizzly Bear Rendezvous at their property on the east shore of Flathead Lake for several summers. The fundraiser supported Montana's Fish, Wildlife and Parks Foundation with a focus on raising funds for biologists to monitor grizzly bears.

A 2010 Daily Inter Lake article by then outdoors reporter Jim Mann told a colorful story of how Hanna was filming a public service announcement promoting the use of pepper spray in Glacier National Park. As it turned out, Hanna and his crew put the bear spray to good use on the Grinnell Glacier Trail when they were approached by a mother grizzly and her two cubs on the trail.

The mother and one cub ambled past the group, but the other cub kept approaching. Hanna used the bear spray to deter the bear when it got within 10 feet.

"I got him in the face and he shook his head and ran," Hanna told the Inter Lake.

Hanna and his lively story-telling have helped him advocate for various wildlife causes.

Hanna, who always wore khakis on every television appearance and in photos, hosted the popular syndicated TV show “Jack Hanna's Animal Adventures” from 1993 to 2008. He also hosted “Jack Hanna's Into the Wild,” which started in 2007, and “Jack Hanna's Wild Countdown" until last year.

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

His family asked for privacy in light of COVID-19 restrictions.

“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 conversations," his family said. “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 Daily Inter Lake contributed to this report.