The Kansas City Zoo attracts more than just families and summer camp groups. Wednesday afternoon, Independence Chamber of Commerce members entered wearing suits and carrying business cards.

These leaders and employees gathered to hear from speaker and zoo CEO Randy Wisthoff as part of their monthly luncheon. Wisthoff announced big milestones for the zoo, including its recent passage of one million visitors. Yet in the midst of groundbreaking statistics, Wisthoff – who says he’s known for his “animal stories” – chose to focus his speech on one baby chimpanzee.

For Wisthoff the tale of six-month-old Gracie exemplifies the work and dedication of zoos. After he noticed Gracie was nursing, but not gaining weight or becoming more active due to an infection, he and a team of zookeepers committed to raising her themselves.

Though this might seem like the plot behind a cute family movie, Wisthoff offered a realistic, behind-the-scenes look.

“The life of a zookeeper is not a glamour profession,” he said.

Wisthoff described his staff staying overnight and wearing fuzzy vests to resemble the chimp’s mother. Then, they began making steps to transition Gracie back to her family, training her to retrieve her own bottle and establish bonds with other chimpanzees they slowly introduced. He said this process is complicated because chimpanzees have one of the most complex social structures in the animal kingdom, with tight-knit family groups often wary and violent toward newcomers.

Now, however, the zoo counts Gracie’s return to her outdoor habitat as one of its top priorities, with Wisthoff saying it will happen soon.

Just as Gracie’s story shows, individual animals can make a strong impact at the zoo. Recently, the facility also welcomed a baby giraffe named Dixie, two baby otters, a new polar bear, two new rhinos and its first baby swamp monkey.

Wisthoff also highlighted the success of the new stingray exhibit, which opened in May. This large tank allows visitors to watch stingrays swim and even touch the creatures.

“It’s a great, interactive exhibit for children to be one on one with animals,” zoo visitor Heather Mozey said.

This and other additions receive significant support from Jackson County. In 2011, voters approved a one-eighth cent sales tax for residents and visitors who buy items in the area. This translates to an estimated $14 million for the zoo.

According to Kim Romary, director of marketing, tentative smaller building projects for 2019 include camel feeding stations and a renovation of the tree kangaroo exhibit. The zoo plans to announce a big building project in the next few months.