KC Zoo director retiring this year

Mike Genet
The Examiner USA TODAY NETWORK

When Randy Wisthoff departed as director of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo in 2003 to take over a struggling Kansas City Zoo, he believed he left a top-of-the-line facility. 

Wisthoff says he has same feeling again. 

The executive director/CEO of the Kansas City Zoo, a Blue Springs resident, announced this week that he’ll retire at the end of the 2021 and move to a part-time role as executive director of the Zoo Foundation, where he’ll oversee the completion of a long-planned aquarium. 

Wisthoff says it will be the zoo’s largest project yet, and that’s after he guided more than $100 million worth of projects during his 18 years leading the zoo, which helped the zoo attract more than double its average annual attendance from before he arrived. In 2016, more than 1 million people when through the gates. 

"He’s taken the zoo to a place not many Kansas Citians could have imagined,” said Hayley Hanson, president of the Friends of the Zoo. 

“He’s brought something new and exciting to the zoo almost every year, and really changed the face of the zoo forever,” Hanson said. “I really don’t believe that before Randy’s leadership, the Kansas City Zoo was a destination.” 

“People would go to Omaha or St. Louis, and now they come here.” 

Two voter-approved funding mechanisms, Wisthoff said – a $30 million bond issue in 2004 and a 2011 sales tax in Jackson and Clay counties – “put this place on a trajectory to be a world-class zoo.” 

“That’s what I was always able to say in Omaha, and I’m not uncomfortable saying that again,” Wisthoff said. 

The longtime director, 72, says he’s planned for about five years to retire at this time, but in 2016 he thought the aquarium would be finished by now. 

“That’s what threw a monkey wrench – that’s a good zoo term – into my plans,” Wisthoff said. “It’s a job you love, it’s a job of passion and I don’t ever say I can just step away from there, but there was no place to go, if you want to slow down.” 

So, he and the zoo’s supporting non-profit groups, the Friends of the Zoo and the Zoo Foundation, worked out a plan under which Wisthoff could stay involved in the zoo’s $75 million aquarium project, scheduled for completion in the summer of 2023.  

“I’ll be focusing on what’s fun and productive; not the day-to-day stuff,” he said. “Basically, my job will be to make sure we finish it on time and raise the rest of the money we need to.” 

Wisthoff had been at the Omaha zoo for 26 years when the Friends of the Zoo brought him to Kansas City, shortly after the zoo had been privatized. Some city leaders soon floated the idea of a bond issue for deferred maintenance. 

“It was a defining moment,” Wisthoff said. “The zoo was not in good shape. Fundraising was going to be difficult, so let’s see if the voters will show enough confidence to give them this gift – and that’s how we treated it, as a gift. 

“We promised we would bring the polar bears back, and make some other changes to make it more visitor friendly.” 

Attendance had been averaging about 400,000 annually when he arrived, Wisthoff said, and when the polar bears arrived in 2010 it jumped to 600,000, then grew steadily for several years. After reaching the million mark in 2016, the zoo had averaged about 900,000 attendance since until the pandemic. Wisthoff predicts it will jump back over 1 million when the aquarium opens. 

Besides the polar bears, and new entry way and several new or reconstructed exhibits have opened, including the Helzburg Penguin Plaza. The 2011 sales tax not only provided a steady revenue stream but allowed for greater outreach, particularly in Jackson and Clay counties. The zoo’s budget has nearly doubled, and the staff has nearly done the same. 

“The impact was driven by the infusion of public support,” Wisthoff said, and essentially success compounded. “When that happens, it makes it easier to raise private funds.” 

In searching for Wisthoff’s successor, Hanson said, the Friends of the Zoo will look for someone who can “stay the course” with community outreach and producing new exhibits. 

“I get to leave it keyed up in a good spot for my successor, no matter who that is and when it happens,” Wisthoff said. “There’s always challenges, but they’ll be good and not cleaning up messes.”