Outstanding facility demands continued strong leadership.

The person charged with running Lee Richardson Zoo must don many hats.

Kathy Sexson, currently executive director of the Garden City zoo, has done as much in three decades of service at the local attraction, with the last nine as executive director.

Sexson, who recently announced plans to retire, skillfully handled the responsibilities of working with staff, volunteers, board members and donors; building and overseeing a budget; and staying current on the various animal species and the zoo's role in education and conservation.

When previous zoo director Dan Baffa resigned in 2005, Sexson then deputy director and curator of education stepped in as interim director before being selected for the top spot.

Someone not so familiar with the local zoo might be brought on board this time, as the result of a nationwide search.

Regardless of who ends up in the position, they'll know running a zoo in today's world is anything but a breeze.

Along with keeping daily operations and improvements on track, the zoo's leader also must deflect criticism from fanatical, so-called animal rights groups that claim zoo animals, in particular elephants, are mistreated.

Such past claims were especially off base in regard to Lee Richardson Zoo, which has an elephant management program considered a model for others.

Indeed, thanks to a strong record of overall care, Lee Richardson Zoo has maintained American Zoo and Aquarium Association accreditation, an indicator of excellence that places the facility among elite zoos.

Credit Sexson and her team for maintaining that lofty status.

Zoos and other facilities denied the accreditation lose privileges that include the ability to borrow or loan animals to other zoos. Such setbacks jeopardize captive breeding programs needed to ensure the survival of vulnerable species.

With a collection of more than 300 extraordinary animals representing more than 100 species, Lee Richardson Zoo has been instrumental in those efforts.

Moving forward, we'd expect the city to bring in a top-notch hire needed to maintain the level of excellence at a zoo that not only has improved local quality of life, but also played an important part in saving endangered species.