Creating A Guest-Friendly, Engaging Zoo: A Conversation with Randy Wisthoff, CEO/Executive Director

Randy Wisthoff has been a household name in the zoo business since he served as Associate Director at Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo from 1987 to 2003. During this time, he served as right hand man to director Lee Simmons as he turned the zoo into a world-famous institution with many cutting edge exhibits that were best of their kind. In 2003, Wisthoff became CEO/Executive Director of the Kansas City Zoo, a large institution that had just been privatized in order to realize its potential and operate more efficiently. He has made the zoo much more guest friendly, added several popular animals and engaging experiences and led the zoo to having more than one million guests. Here is his story.

@ Kansas City Zoo

Randy Wisthoff admitted he wound up working in the zoo business “almost by accident.” “I was finishing my degree at the University of Nebraska [intending for a] career as a junior high science teacher and my wife worked in retail,” he recalled. “We had very little money to spend on entertainment so we bought a zoo membership [to Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo] since we could go all the time for free.” Even though Wisthoff noted this was “long before” the zoo had become world-famous, he “feel in love with the zoo itself” immediately. “Serendipity [took place as] I was in a botany class and someone was writing with a Henry Doorly Zoo pen,” Wisthoff remembered. “I said something about going there and he said he worked out in food service at the zoo. I said it would be so interesting to work at a zoo since I was going to be a science teacher. He told me the key to working at the zoo was to them you’ll do anything. I really wanted to be an animal keeper but I told the curator I would do anything and he gave me the job of driving the garbage truck around the zoo. I started in February 1977.”

@ Omaha's Henry Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Soon enough, Wisthoff got his opportunity to work with animals. “In May or June of 1977, they were about to open the state zoo in Apple Valley, Minnesota,” he recalled. “They recruited all over the Midwest and we had a number of zoo keepers leave to take high paying state jobs at the Minnesota Zoo. [Suddenly,] there was a shortage of help. I got to transfer to the animal department and become a keeper. I worked with African elephants, white rhinos, gorillas, orangutans, sea lions and gaurs. I worked hard, loved it and always did a little more.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

At the time, the zoo’s director was Dr. Lee G. "Doc" Simmons, a great visionary who had ambitious plans for the zoo. “In the summer of 1979 I believe, the zoo changed its management structure and Doc decided to add an education curator, which they didn’t have before,” Wisthoff explained. “I had an education degree so Doc promoted me to that. At the time, there weren’t very many education curators in the zoo world and it was [considered] the up and coming thing. There weren’t really marketing or development departments either; it was mostly just animals, facilities and food service/gift shop. I took over the direction of the whole volunteer docent program, which was very common in zoos back in those days, and created an education department that offered educational opportunities, overnights, campouts, classes and birthday parties. It became a self-sufficient department.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Wisthoff and Simmons worked very well together as they led the zoo to new heights. “It was a very busy time,” he stated. “We opened the big Cat Complex right after I got there in the summer of 1977. That was the first big time exhibit Doc did. Piggybacked on that was the giraffe house, the bear area and the free flight aviary. Back then, the professional senior staff was very small and we helped out with whatever we could do for the good of the organization. I learned and learned and learned and became well versed in a number of things.” In order to give Simmons more free time for fundraising and exhibit development, Randy Wisthoff became the Associate Director of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo in 1987. “The growth of the zoo required an organizational structural change [and additional support],” Wisthoff stated.

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

That same year, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo broke ground on Lied Jungle, the most ambitious project in the zoo’s history and the largest indoor rainforest in the world upon completion. “It kind of all started with Lied Jungle,” Wisthoff elaborated. “Doc was a creative genius with exhibits and knew how they were going to look like long before an architect drew [the plans.] Then we’d have discussions on the components that went into them. Doc knew the general concept he was looking for but included us in [on figuring out] some of the detail placement, species selection and visitor amenities.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

“Doc saw JungleWorld [at the Bronx Zoo] and was like 'Oh my god this is phenomenal,'” Wisthoff stated. ”His realization of what [that exhibit] meant for the zoo world inspired Lied Jungle.” While expensive, a generous donation was able to fund the massive structure. “That exhibit was funded by the Lied Foundation,” Wisthoff explained. “This gentleman’s wealth got its start with a dealership in Omaha before he moved to Las Vegas. When Lied died, he left all his money to that foundation and wanted the money to go back to the Midwest where it would help make a different in the communities that got him started. They were donating money in very large quantities and Doc was able to land a $15 million donation for Lied Jungle. Without that sole donation, I don’t know if it would have been built.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

The project required an expansion of the zoo’s staff and resources. “When we opened Lied Jungle, that took a certain number of bodies to open and run it and the addition of horticulture staff,” Wisthoff continued. “Also, there was the realization as the zoo grew we needed to add more guest amenities and facilities. Every department grew as we went through the process of adding what we needed as we grew. As Assistant Director, I was helping drive that conclusion and saying we need to build the operating budget by this much.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Lied Jungle was a massive success, gained international attention and drove attendance of Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo to over one million visitors a year (the zoo has since exceeded two million annual visitors.) “It was one of those things where success brought more success,” Wisthoff reflected. “Attendance just skyrocketed. Since then, the zoo has never had less than one million guests a year, which is phenomenal for a city of that size. Lied Jungle set the bar very high so any subsequent exhibit was going to be heroic in scale and cutting edge for that zoo and community. The residents of Omaha still take tremendous pride in their zoo.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

Lied Jungle was followed up by Scott Aquarium, the largest aquarium within a zoo in America. “[Lied Jungle] led to other things Doc wanted to do like an aquarium,” Wisthoff stated. “The Aquarium was named after Walter and Susan Scott. It was a dream of Doc’s and ended up having over on million gallons of water. It’s the largest aquarium in any zoo.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

The ambitions of Dr. Simmons didn’t stop there. “Doc is a veterinarian by education but I also called him a frustrated engineer or designer,” Wisthoff articulated. “He’s always fascinated with shapes and structures. He wanted to do a geodesic dome. That was the genesis to talking about doing the Desert Dome (the largest indoor desert exhibit in a zoo.) The dome came first in his mind before the desert portion. He then pulled [ideas] from deserts he had seen and [came up with] things he wanted to do.”

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

The Desert Dome opened in 2002 again to great fanfare. The next year, Kingdoms of the Night, the largest nocturnal exhibit in a zoo, opened in its basement. “Most things in Omaha have a basement and we had to have a structure hold the dome up so we created Kingdoms of the Night,” Wisthoff added.

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

@ Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo

By 2003, Wisthoff was getting recruited to direct his own zoo. “Along the way, I would get calls from headhunters,” he remarked. “I wasn’t desperate to leave but Lee and I had talked and he said he would support me and give me a good reference. I’m from the Midwest and love the Midwest so I was only going to move to a city in the Midwest. I also had only worked for a zoo run by a nonprofit so I couldn’t imagine going back and learning how a public zoo operated through a city or county.” In spring 2003, Randy Wisthoff was recruited to direct the Kansas City Zoo and became CEO/Executive Director in fall 2003.

@ Grayson Ponti

The Kansas City Zoo had just privatized in 2002 and needed to work a number of issues out. “It was a challenge to say the least,” Wisthoff explained. “Kansas City Zoo has a long history, starting in 1909. The zoo was operated by the parks department, who had a separate board of commissioners. In the early 1990s, the city was obviously sitting here realizing [the success of the zoos] in Omaha, Wichita and Saint Louis and wanted to invest major resources into the zoo. They came up with a big $50 million bond campaign and redid a master plan with grand visions of rebuilding the whole zoo. The starting point was adding 100 acres that would be a total African immersion type of exhibit.”

@ Grayson Ponti

“Back then, Friends of the Kansas City Zoo sold memberships and operated the gift shop, Wisthoff continued. "They committed that if the zoo would put in $50 million, they would launch their own fundraising campaign and put in an Imax theater. That was back when there was a big push for Imax. The bond passed, Africa opened in 1995 and the city promised the zoo would get a million in attendance. The plan was then to come right back with a bond passage to build an Asian exhibit and on and on until they had a brand new zoo. All worked well up until a point. Public support of Africa started strong and they had an all-time high in 1998 but then attendance started going down. That just put a stop to the expansion plan. How do you go back to the city for more money when you were supposed to get one million guests but attendance is going backwards?”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

While Africa, a 95-acre complex featuring African elephants, chimpanzees, gorillas, giraffes, black rhinos, lions, hippos, cheetahs, warthogs, baboons, crocodiles and a variety of other African animals, was phenomenal for the animals, it was not always visitor friendly. “The public had issues with the size of the African section,” Wisthoff explained. “You had to cross a bridge to get over to it and [the entire area] was big and expansive. There were no grand plans for transportation to get people out and back but it was over a mile-long loop if you didn’t see the gorillas. There was hardly any air conditioning and the habitats were so big that when it was hot outside, the animals would spend a fair amount of the day laying in the shade. It was too hot, far and had too many things. Attendance just kept falling.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

Right before Wisthoff came to the Kansas City Zoo, discussions about the future of the zoo “became much more serious” and the decision was made in 2002 to privatize the zoo. “If you don’t have attendance that drives the revenue and people don’t appreciate what you’ve added, you don’t have a revenue side to offset it,” Wisthoff remarked. “It was determined Friends of the Zoo would step up and take over since the public has a difficult time donating to a government agency.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

Wisthoff’s first job was to get the zoo in shape financially and help it operate more efficiently. “When I got here in November 2003, the zoo was operating three million in the red,” he stated. “Our first priority was trying to propose a budget we could balance in 2004. We cut about ten-twelve percent of the operating budget. Projected attendance for 2004 was 400,000 visitors- that was how far we had gotten from the dream of one million. We let the revenue stream get us to the point where we could balance the budget.” Wisthoff’s experience managing the budget at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo helped him succeed at this goal. “It’s difficult to ask people for money and support if you can’t operate what you have,” he added.

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Grayson Ponti

In 2004, the city of Kansas City offered to help the Kansas City Zoo by giving $30 million in bond money for deferred maintenance. “This was piggybacked on $50 million that didn’t meet expectations,” Wisthoff remarked. “We said 'Yes. We would love these funds.' In April 2004, the city offered up a separate ballot question for zoo improvements that would bring polar bears back to the zoo. We launched a campaign and ended up with 65% in favor. That turned the tide and we passed it because deep down people want to have a good zoo. I was given a vote of confidence. They were willing to give the zoo another chance.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

However, the problem was the city didn’t create a revenue stream to pay for the bond. “We couldn’t get it all at once and had to take it piecemeal,” Randy Wisthoff articulated. “We talked about doing things that would make a difference right away. The number one thing we attacked is we started trying to make general zoo improvements and clean the place up. We got rid of the weedy flower gardens and dirty bathrooms and created a clean, fun environment. We tried to see what we could do to bring these animals up closer.” The zoo added a number of keeper talks to help engage guests more intimately in the animal experience. If I saw a paper blown in front of me, I ran and grabbed it. That had to become our culture. If we got a flower garden, we needed to keep it free of weeds."

@ Kansas City Zoo

“Anytime we got any bond money, we invested in creating things that were user friendly,” Wisthoff elaborated. “We would put in air conditioning and toilets, add animals that were active and make sure anything we made was viewable by a kid in a stroller. We did a side fundraising component where we redid the front entrance. We had been one of the most difficult zoos to get into so we made it one of the easier ones to get into. We put an otter exhibit 50 feet away from entrance [because] people love animals in water. Nothing we did was a weird concept or rocket science. We just played to what guests wanted.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

A number of exhibit revamps and infrastructure additions were made to improve the visitor experience at the Kansas City Zoo. “It gets hot in Kansas City so needed to keep [the zoo] air conditioned,” Randy Wisthoff stated. “We redid our sea lion pool by putting bleachers in and covering it up. We rehabbed our 1909 building and made it a jungle with a lot of diurnal primates. If it was nocturnal, it didn’t live here. We paired Asian small-clawed otters with gibbons so we had something high and something low. We even put a swimming portal under the path for the otters.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

While the animal habitats in Africa have remained largely the same, the zoo took efforts to make it more visitor friendly. “We added viewing decks, shaded areas and outdoor fans to Africa,” Wisthoff added. “We put in a chairlift ride so you go diagonally across the savanna and can easily get to the chimps. You can get off there or take a long walk, which has eased the complaints. You can get a good animal experience and just walk halfway back. We added another passenger tram, which is a dollar out, a dollar back. I haven’t solved Africa but have made it more palatable.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

In 2010, the Kansas City Zoo opened Polar Bear Passage, which brought the Arctic predators back to the zoo for the first time in 20 years. “We did Polar Bear Passage 150 feet away from the gate so they’re right there,” Randy Wisthoff remarked. “We built it to Manitoba Standards and beyond so we could have a great space for them. It is an iconic animal and it’s a great exhibit for the bear and visitor. Having a marquee animal by the guests is good." In addition to the large pool, the exhibit features great interpretation educating guests about the plight of polar bears and climate change.

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

Polar Bear Passage helped Kansas City Zoo’s attendance skyrocket, as did Helzburg Penguin Plaza when it opened in 2013. Like Polar Bear Passage, it succeeded in bringing marquee animals close to the zoo’s entrance. “Everyone loves penguins so we used the same design philosophy,” Wisthoff elaborated. “We created as many viewing areas [for the guests] to see the penguins as possible. You can look underwater and see them swim. We used the geography of the land to create different viewing opportunities."

@ Grayson Ponti

@ Kansas City Zoo

Penguin Plaza incorporated several modern features to facilitate top notch animal welfare. “We put in a big ice shelf with snow machines,” Wisthoff commented. “The pool [inside for the Antarctic penguins] is big enough for you to see the penguins porpoising in and out of water at speed. We added a Humboldt penguin exhibit where we can put them inside and outside. We have portals under the water and can open it up with a big door.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

One of the biggest improvements Wisthoff has made to the Kansas City Zoo is the addition of Orangutan Canopy, a vastly improved habitat for the zoo’s red apes. “I didn’t like the outdoor orangutan enclosure they had,” he remarked. “I had some tax money to [do Orangutan Canopy.] We got those orangutans out on natural grass and gave them vertical space, climbing poles and platforms. It was important to get them off the ground.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

In 2016, the Kansas City Zoo surpassed one million visitors for the first time ever. Some future plans for the zoo include an aquarium and Predator Canyon, an exhibit featuring carnivores, possibly jaguars, snow leopards, sharks and vampire bats. Wisthoff would also like to redo the elephant barn and add indoor viewing for gorillas and giraffes, possibly bringing the gorillas to a new habitat closer to the main path.

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

The Kansas City Zoo is committed to top notch animal care. “Animal care has been a major call for action by AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums) and WAZA (World Association of Zoos and Aquariums),” Wisthoff elaborated. “Animal welfare and care are absolutely at the top of our priority list. We have an animal welfare committee and a major enrichment program. We do as much training as we can with a massive number of animals from elephants to polar bears to great apes. We’ve got a rhino and chimpanzees who will allow us to do ultrasounds. We can do health and medical procedures without anesthetizing the animal. If we train that animal to accept an exam or get blood, we do that. We try to use enrichment and food for positive reinforcement.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

During Wisthoff’s tenure, the Kansas City Zoo has dramatically expanded its involvement in insitu conservation. “We don’t want to spend taxpayer money on conservation so we do private fundraising,” he explained. “We added up to donating five dollars from every membership and 25 cents from every admission to conservation. We’re now raising and spending $300,000 on conservation projects a year. We’re especially trying to stimulate and take on our own self guided programs.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

“We’ve just adopted a five-acre track in Borneo to reforest,” Wisthoff stated. “”That’s a program we’ve invested in and my staff is over there planting trees. We’re trying to reestablish orangutan corridors there. We’re also involved in elephant conservation in Zambia along the lower Zambezi River. We’re trying to photograph the animal population and identify poacher trafficking. We’re also supporting a team of rangers that is stationed out in the national park as anti-poaching control. We’re also done work following pathways of brown hyenas and helping build a rescue ark for amphibians in Lake Titicaca. We’re involved with the Brookfield and Saint Louis Zoos on a Humboldt penguin facility in Peru and supporting a research facility there.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

“Having been in the business for 40 years, I know zoos are absolutely going to be the last stronghold of exotic animals on the planet,” Wisthoff reflected. “Our role is to continue to create exhibits and educate the public but also to try to find solutions to avoid extinction in the wild. When I started, it was all about repopulation while now it’s all about habitat protection, anti-poaching and how to preserve enough habitat and animal pathways so animals can migrate to where they need to go for food and reproduction. I see that as our main role in remaining relevant to society as conservation organizations.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

@ Kansas City Zoo

“I’m really happy I could come down to a zoo that was struggling, turn it around and create a zoo people want to come to and are happy with,” Randy Wisthoff concluded. “They’re happy seeing the animals happy and proud we created this conservation program. We’re not just reading about saving animals in the wild but participating.”

@ Kansas City Zoo

#KansasCityZoo #OmahasHenryDoorlyZoo

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I'm a 23-year old wildlife enthusiast, conservation and animal welfare advocate, environmental activist and zoo fanatic who aspires to work in zoo public relations or education. I am here to share some insight into the world's best zoos to show all the great things they are doing. 

 

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