Unlike man-made destinations that draw people to Central Florida from around the world, the Space Coast has long been famous for “authentic experiences.” Here, people come to be immersed in nature and human achievements that rival any science fiction novel. Walking the beaches, kayaking the rivers, standing a few feet from an actual Space Shuttle, or watching a thunderous launch, this is what visitors and residents love.
For over 25 years, Brevard Zoo has been a crucial part of that real-world showcase and has gained an international reputation for wildlife care and preservation. Leading Brevard Zoo since 2004, Keith Winsten has brought a passion for nature and an entrepreneurial approach to making this zoo, our zoo, a key part of Brevard’s identity.
EW: Explain the why and the uniqueness of the Brevard Zoo?
KW: The ‘why’ of the Zoo is really found in its history. It was envisioned and built for Brevard, by people in Brevard. Most zoos are the legacy of a relatively small, wealthy group of citizens. This Zoo was a rather audacious community dream. Many enjoyed being a part of the Zoo’s actual construction, though not all of them thought it would actually make it.
Also, from the beginning, it has operated with a very entrepreneurial approach, because it doesn’t rely on recurring public operating funds. Of the 225 accredited zoos in the U.S., there only a handful that have our operating model. That has made us very nimble and responsive, creating an incredibly engaging public experience that can compete with the myriad of options in Central Florida. The other is the mission side of the Zoo’s work. Responding to that call we set up one of the most unique sea turtle healing centers anywhere. Why did we do that? Because we are in one of the largest sea turtle nesting areas in the world. We also responded to that call, by mobilizing literally tens of thousands of people to engage in restoration of the Indian River Lagoon. There are others, like our educational program for young people. All of these move us toward the mission of helping wildlife and people thrive together.
EW: Your educational program goes beyond just what you do on site in Brevard, correct?
KW: Yes, by necessity, we had to move our typical camp to a virtual platform. Suddenly, we were getting responses from people all over the country and even in Canada and Mexico, whose children are participating in our virtual camp. Working parents are contacting us and saying, ‘I am getting three hours of work done because my kids are so engaged in your camp.’
One of the emerging roles zoos play, in addition to the focus we make on conservation and education, is to ensure people are connecting with the natural world around them. We have many outdoor activities for kids on the Space Coast, but many, many young people in other places spend their time staring at a video screen. We are a bridge between communities and the nature.
EW: Research is also a component of many zoos, what about here?
KW: We have always had a heavy applied conservation piece. A couple of years ago, Florida Tech hired a professor, Dr. Darby Proctor, who studies animal cognition. One of the factors in attracting her was the opportunity to work with our primates. She now is a critical part of our team, who is not only doing research, she is helping us design the environments our animals are in. Since then, FIT has hired a second research professor and the partnership continues to grow.
All this, however, was more opportunistic than anything we planned in some long-term strategy. We connected world-class talent with the platform the Brevard Zoo has and watched it grow.
We’ve always been like that line from Hamilton, “I’m just like my country, I’m young, hungry and scrappy.” To survive and to compete we had to be. From the beginning, everyone involved with the Zoo understood we have to provide an unparalleled experience that people wanted to come back to and we have continued to look for ways to make that happen.
Like an entrepreneur, we invest in projects or experiences, where there is a return on the investment for us and where there is the return on the investment for the community. Also, hopefully, we can help people become better consumers of science. That people would understand the scientific approach, the rigorous debate and inquiry that comes before a conclusion is made. We can serve people in how to process scientific information and scientific methods.
EW: What, as a leader, what have been your greatest ah-ha moments and things you are most proud of?
KW: It was back in the 2008 recession and I woke up one night and realized our model of targeting young children living in Brevard wasn’t sustainable. It was good and it would always be a part of our mission, but, economically, that couldn’t keep us going. So we started marketing outside of Brevard and increased that proportion from being between 30-35 percent of our attendance, to 45 percent. We also added the Tree Top Trek to appeal to an older demographic.
Also, in the world there are some 275 people who have been recognized as “Diplomats” in zoological medicine. It is a very difficult and prestigious accreditation. Two of them work here full time. Our Zoo is becoming known for that work.
EW: Tell me about the genesis and the evolution of the aquarium project?
KW: Like all entrepreneurial endeavors, we always look for opportunities that align with our brand. What will give our guests authentic experiences and the zoo economic stability. We saw that there was no aquarium south of Charleston on the I-95 corridor and there was an incredible aquatic dimension to the Zoo already. Plus, the site at Port Canaveral was an ideal place to observe wildlife, like dolphins and manatees already. Also, we need something that convenes and focuses our efforts on the lagoon.
We had confidence that if we built it, adequate numbers of people would come. We have a track record of providing unique guest experiences and we knew the experts that could help us realize the vision. The challenge was the capital dollars to build it, because we wanted to limit our debt. We ran attendance projections and took the most conservative one. As you know, when the state cut the funds for [our] feasibility studies, a family donated the money. Then, because they were so enthusiastic about the project, they donated another $13 million. That community investment, just like how we started 26 years ago, has brought us to the place, where, right before COVID-19, we were ready to begin our major fundraising.
EW: Let’s pivot right there, how has COVID-19 impacted the Brevard Zoo and how have you responded?
KW: Like many tourist-based organizations, we make our money in the first six months of the year, [with] March and April being the most im- portant months. Our cost continues [beyond that period]: if we lose our professional staff it would take years to reassemble, and our attraction is animals, not rides, which have to be cared for.
We focused on repositioning people and working on projects that were difficult to do when the Zoo is open. We also had to furlough a number of our part-time staff, then we reopened, which was really scary for us.
Fortunately, we are primarily an outdoor experience, our indoor exhibits we didn’t reopen. We required masks, both for the safety of people and our animals. Currently, we are down in attendance by 50 percent and think that will continue until there is a vaccine. Everyone’s salary and hours were reduced. We are also fundraising for operational support because the Brevard Zoo has to stay financially healthy for the hope, which is the aquarium, to become a reality. In this past month, we have been able to project what the reasonable need is to sustain the Zoo at its current level. Many donors contacted us and said, ‘We gave to support this project, but please use our gift wherever it is most needed.’
EW: What is the individual story that stands out the most to you, if in 20 years you were looking back.
KW: There are many, but one I often tell is about the Zoo School, where we serve Title One schools. For nine weeks of the school year, kids come by bus and this is where they go to school.
One day, my office called me and said there was a young man who wanted to make a donation, would you like to meet him? I said sure.
He was college-aged and he came to donate $512. He said, ‘In my family, most didn’t make it through high school, and no one had graduated from college. In fifth grade, I came to Zoo School.
I love animals and for those nine weeks I got straight A’s, because if I did well, I could participate in every activity. At the end of the nine weeks, I realized I could do this. I’m now in my senior year at Florida Tech and wanted to give something back to the zoo.’