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Jeff Swanagan

Jeff Swanagan

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Jeff Swanagan, the former Georgia Aquarium executive director and president who left Atlanta last year to become executive director of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium, died Sunday evening of an apparent heart attack.Swanagan, 51, collapsing while mowing the lawn of his suburban Columbus home.Enlarge this imageAJC FILE PHOTOJeffery Swanagan• Photos: Swanagan at Georgia AquariumLIVINGLatest Headlines: Georgia Aquarium to welcome 10 millionth visitor Aquarium adds 4 sandbar sharks to exhibit Cellphones serve as '$300 baby rattle' Athens ranked among best places to live Jobless Atlantans stay busy volunteering • More Living Stories • Living photo galleries • Georgia Aquarium news and photos • Zoo Atlanta news and photos"Jeff was a visionary, educator and wildlife advocate whose mantra was 'touch the heart to teach the mind,'" Columbus Zoo and Aquarium officials said in a statement Monday morning.

"The zoo community mourns the loss of their friend, colleague and leader and sends our condolences to his family."Swanagan, who was hired to create the Georgia Aquarium in 2002, started his career at the Columbus Zoo in 1980 as a zookeeper and was the Ohio facility's education director from 1982 to 1987.He also worked 11 years at Zoo Atlanta before moving to the Florida Aquarium in Tampa in 1998."Jeff Swanagan joined the Georgia Aquarium when it was still just a dream," aquarium founder Bernie Marcus said last June when Swanagan left to return to Columbus.

"He was not only involved with its planning from the very beginning, he helped create its structure and brought aboard qualified people to lead it."Anthony Godfrey, president and chief operating officer of the Georgia Aquarium, issued a statement Monday saying, "Jeff left a family of staff here at the Georgia Aquarium who cared deeply for him."He was a dedicated educator whose passion for making a difference for wild things in wild places was evident through all of his work and leadership," Godfrey said.

"We send our love and respect to his family.

This is a great loss for the zoological community."Swanagan, a native of Cleveland, said last year that he was approached by world-renowned animal expert Jack Hanna, a longtime friend, about the Columbus job.Hanna is director emeritus of the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium."Right now, I'm in a state of shock," Hanna told the the Columbus Dispatch newspaper Sunday night.

"It's just awful news."
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