A Small Zoo That Does Big Things: A Conversation with Keith Winsten, Director of the Brevard Zoo

With the tagline ‘a small zoo that does big things,’ the Brevard Zoo is one of the best small medium sized zoos in the nation. Located in Melbourne, Florida, the zoo has established itself as a leader in conservation for zoos of its size especially in terms of Florida’s Atlantic coast. Nothing in the Brevard Zoo is over 25 years old and it has benefited from experiences such as kayaking and ziplining. The zoo is led by Keith Winsten, who comes from a zoo education background. He has a reputation for helping pioneer nature play in zoos. Winsten has proven himself to be an ambitious leader who has helped raise the reputation of the zoo. Here is his story.

@ Brevard Zoo

Winsten’s love of nature began when his sister’s best friend gave him a pair of garter snakes when he was six years old. Immediately he knew he wanted to be a herper. “I would weasel my way into the Bronx Zoo and talk to John Baylor (the zoo’s late Curator of Reptiles) at the Reptile House,” Winsten recollected. During high school and college he spent ample time working at nature centers. In 1989, he was hired by the Roger Williams Park Zoo in Providence as Director of Education. “Tony Vecchio asked everyone how you use education to change behaviors,” Winsten said. “Everyone else gave a very long-winded answer while I said ‘I don’t know, that’s a challenge.’ That was exactly the answer Tony was looking for.” Vecchio (now the Director of the Jacksonville Zoo) was General Curator when Winsten came onboard but was promoted to director two months later.

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

Under Tony Vecchio’s leadership, the Roger Williams Park Zoo went into a renaissance. “Nancy Derrig, the superintendent of parks, had a vision and wanted to turn the zoo around,” Keith Winsten elaborated. “There was already the design for a new African exhibit. When we were there, the zoo had a very entrepreneurial spirit. Tony was all about making things happen and pushing the envelopment in terms of conservation. He brought in Ann Savage as the conservation scientist on staff and encouraged us to do much more conservation education and exhibits that pushed the envelope.”

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

Keith Winsten retains high respect for his mentor and his department had great success. “What Tony does is give you the freedom to dream,” he remarked. “Tony was really someone who recognized people who brought entrepreneurial spirit and he welcomed new ideas out of the box. He thought it was his job to let those ideas grow and find the resources to do them. When I got there, there weren’t any paid employees in education besides me and my two staff were two eighty year-old volunteers. We had an existing docent council which I used and we worked with underprivileged children. We did fee-based programs like sleepover camps and nature camps that were profitable as well as programs with universities that were more in-depth. We worked with unprivileged teenagers and started Zoo Power, which paid young people to become conservationists. Zoo Power won an education award from AZA as did our teaching workshop.”

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

The entire Roger Williams Park Zoo began to look drastically different. The first project was Fabrics of Africa, which featured African elephants, giraffes, cheetahs and African antelope and birds. “What we built for Africa didn’t look much like the model since the plastic animals were the wrong scale,” Winsten laughed. The period of growth culminated with Marco Polo Trail, which featured the animals Marco Polo encountered on his journey. Winsten was responsible for the interpretives that went along with the exhibit. “We never wanted to do things the same way,” he reflected. “Even our regional conference was on a completely different scale than what existed before.” Winsten added the Roger Williams Park Zoo was one of the first zoos to have animatronic dinosaurs outside.

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

@ Roger Williams Park Zoo

In 1997, Keith Winsten moved to the Brookfield Zoo, located right outside of Chicago. “I had been at the Roger Williams Park Zoo for nine years and needed a change,” he noted. “I was looking to see what it was like to work at a world-class large zoo.” At the time, the Brookfield Zoo was still under the leadership of the late Dr. George Rabb. “The wonderful thing about the Brookfield Zoo was it was such an academic zoo,” Winsten recalled. “It was a cauldron for the latest thinking. George set it up as a university and wanted all the curators to have PhDs. You made sure the work you did reflected the latest research. You wanted outcome based thing in everything you did.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

However, Winsten also noted the challenges that came with running such a large zoo. “The downside of Brookfield was we were beginning to have some budget shortages,” he noted. “It was a really expensive zoo to maintain and it’s hard to support a zoo that big but George was near the end of his career and it was not his focus. He wanted to keep doing great work and people’s leisure times had become a limited commodity.” Despite this drawback, Winsten found his time at the Brookfield Zoo to be very rewarding. “George was deeply involved in almost every aspect of the zoo,” he commented. “He was a visionary man. You didn’t care if he yelled at you as he tried to get the best out of you. A passionate, brilliant and really caring man and very direct communicator.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

Not only did Keith Winsten head the education department at Brookfield but he also led the development team on a number of projects. “I took the Hamill Family Play Zoo through construction,” he remarked. “That was exhilarating. We knew the focus was going to be a hands on open play experience for kids in nature. That was a really new idea. We worked with play experts from around the world and created this new paradigm of what nature play should be at zoos. That model has now been adopted by many zoos. There were some animals like lemurs you could imitate and a variety of herps but a lot of it was open-ended play around nature. There were outdoor places kids could build forms and a big greenhouse where you could plant plants.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

@ Brookfield Zoo

On other projects, Winsten headed interpretive graphics. By 2004, however, he was ready to become a zoo director. “I had learned what I wanted to learn at Brookfield,” Winsten reflected. “When you’re at a big zoo like that there’s a lot of peer-to-peer relationship managing where you lobby what needs to happen. There was a big group of senior folks. Eventually, you want your own vision to carry through. I was just interested in who would hire me as zoo director. I had a very good friend at the Brevard Zoo and ended up finding a place that really fits my management style.”

@ Brookfield Zoo

When Keith Winsten took over the Brevard Zoo, it was only ten years old and had just completed a large expansion in Expedition Africa. “We’re one of only a handful of zoos that does not receive recurring funds for ,” he explained. “We’ve always been private and had to earn every cent we spent. We’re in a very young community so we don’t have a tradition of people donating. We have neither the public dollars or the philanthropy money. You have to be really lean on the expense side and really entrepreneurial on the income side.” While some might find this lack of financial support to be a challenge, Winsten saw the lack of restraints as a great freedom. “I’m not a great one for bureaucracy,” he remarked. “I want to have the ability to make good decisions and move quickly. I’m deeply interested in innovation and want to take risks.”

@ Brevard Zoo

Bringing in a new director was also a good fit for the zoo. “Margo McKnight had done a wonderful job of bringing the zoo up to Expedition Africa, which gave it enough critical mass to be a good zoo,” Winsten elaborated. “I inherited a founder’s board so it was hard at first to get them to give up that role and be proper board members. They needed a new director who the board gave the freedom not to be micromanaged. They sort of embraced evolving into the role they play. “ He would be responsible for continuing the momentum set up by Margo McKnight and keeping the zoo ambitious but practical. Some of the ways Winsten’s team generated income for the zoo were temporary exhibits like animatronic dinosaurs and a butterfly garden. However, the “most dramatic thing” they did was brought in Treetop Trek, a zipline ropes course in front of the zoo. “That been a big part of our mix ever since and keeps older audiences loving us,” Winsten added.

@ Brevard Zoo

One of Keith Winsten’s biggest accomplishments at the Brevard Zoo has been establishing its role in wildlife conservation. “We already has strong education programs but were searching for our conservation role,” he elaborated. “At the time we were using the small grants model many zoos use. Essentially you’re a granting agency that gives small grants to a variety of international groups that do great work. Another model is the one we used at Roger Williams Park Zoo where you bring a conservation scientist in and really specialize in one program.” Winsten’s solution was to come up with a third model focused on helping support local conservation projects. “It’s opportunistic conservation where people come to us with problems and we solve them.”

@ Brevard Zoo

This approach has let the Brevard Zoo blossom as a conservation leader on Florida’s Atlantic Coast. This model was born through efforts to protect the scrub jay, a local species of bird. “We were challenged by the Sierra Club to do something for the Florida scrub jay and U.S. Fish and Wildlife said no one had an ideology of moving scrub jays,” Winsten explained. “We knew from other experiences if you were moving social animals you had to move the entire social unit and we said we could do that. We didn’t have any money for it but put staff on it and developed a technique for moving scrub jays. That started us having the field researchers identify the program but we would be the ones taking it on.”

@ Brevard Zoo

The Brevard Zoo has invested extensively in the conservation of Perdido Key beach mice. “Fish and Wildlife came to us and said we have this small species of beach mouse since we’re worried Hurricane Hugo will erase them out so why don’t you take them,” Keith Winsten remarked. “We put them in grant tanks with plenty of sand and it turned out if you put them in pairs and a good habitat, they will breed like crazy. We opened up a beach mouse breeding facility to restock the population.”

@ Brevard Zoo

Two other major components of the Brevard Zoo’s conservation efforts have been Quarters for Conservation and marine conservation. “We stole Quarters for Conservation from Zoo Boise,” Winsten stated. “We loved that idea- it’s a great model!” A portion of every admission to the zoo goes to supporting the zoo’s conservation work. “We know quit a bit about what changes conservation behaviors,” Winsten reflected. “We try to directly engage visitors in changing behavior and the action of voting [for Quarters for Conservation] starts you down that road. The Nature Conservancy was running programs for the University of Central Florida engaging people in oyster restoration so we took that public role and engaged people to do this work. We still continue to do the small grants program and through Quarters for Conservation do at least 12 grants a year overseas. We’re not really boots on the ground for those but have relationships with researchers working with species that are important to us.”

@ Brevard Zoo

@ Brevard Zoo

The conservation work is only part of the message the Brevard Zoo tries to get out. “We think there are two messages that need to get out in the community before you can talk about conservation,” Keith Winsten reflected. “They need to be convinced we take really good care of our animals and feel our institution is concerned with animal welfare. If they don’t feel the other two are good, they’re not going to listen to us on conservation. The community feels we care and are making a difference.” Winsten pointed to the zoo’s work with rescuing sea turtles and manatees as a testament to their commitment to animal welfare.

@ Brevard Zoo

In 2009, the Brevard Zoo extensively renovated its Children’s Zoo Paws On and got a Significant Achievement Award from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums for it. “I knew all the research we had done on nature play at Brookfield and our Children’s Zoo was ready to be redone,” Keith Winsten remarked. “We took the same concepts that worked with Brookfield- free play, the forts- but expanded on it and did a water play element. Not purposeless water play with generic plastic animals but a lagoon themed on that habitat. We partnered with the University of Florida to see if behavior changed after the visit and found [Paws Om] inspired families to play more in nature outside.”

@ Brevard Zoo

Winsten and his team have found ways to keep the costs of building new exhibits at the zoo inexpensive and sustainable. “We manage the projects in-house and do a lot of the design in-house,” he said. “Our deputy director is an excellent designer. We like to envision our projects, work with local architects and do them in less expensive ways. When you’re a small zoo, you don’t try to have an encyclopedic collection but an encyclopedia of experiences.”

@ Brevard Zoo

Many of the new exhibits have been expansions to Expedition Africa. The first addition was cheetahs in 2010. “There was a need for people to hold cheetahs so we became a home for geriatric cheetahs,” Winsten commented. In 2015, the zoo added Grevy’s zebras and integrated them in with white rhinos. “We had a lemur exhibit no one could see and needed another big ten species so we built a boardwalk out there and added a barn for zebras,” Winsten said. “Integrating the zebras in with the rhinos was much easier than thought. We assumed the Grevy’s wold be the aggressors but they were great. The rhinos were a bit aggressive at first but we built in escape routs for the Grevy’s and the aggression went away.”

@ Brevard Zoo

@ Brevard Zoo

In 2014, a state-of-the-art meerkat habitat was added to Expedition Africa. “We added meerkats since we needed a highly social mammal,” Keith Winsten explained. “We have one of the best meerkat exhbiits around. We copied a lot of the best features from [other meerkat exhibits] like Houston and made it a focal point. What meerkats did was really raised membership at the zoo since people wanted to come see them.”

@ Brevard Zoo

@ Grayson Ponti

In spring 2017, the Brevard Zoo opened Lands of Change, a complete reimagining of the Australasian loop. “We had some issues with Australasia as our aviaries were getting old, people had to leave their strollers and the kangaroo yard flooded,” Winsten elaborated. Additionally, the staff felt the kangaroos did not flourish in their old exhibit. The decision was made to create new spaces for the animals, change the paths from boardwalks to concrete, add a stronger interpretive layer focusing on climate change and add new animals such as Komodo dragons, green tree pythons, babirusas and wreathed hornbills. “We felt climate change was such an important issue in a community vulnerable to climate change so we tried to address that,” Winsten added.

@ Brevard Zoo

@ Brevard Zoo

Lands of Change has been a huge success. “The real pleasant surprise has been how great the kangaroo experience is now,” Keith Winsten remarked. “{On the walkthrough path,] they just come to you and lie in the middle of the path.” Also worthwhile has been the architecture and design. “We added turf as part of the messaging, which has done great,” Winsten noted. “The design and architecture are really distinctive from the rest of the zoo.”

@ Brevard Zoo

@ Brevard Zoo

The Brevard Zoo has a number of future plans that will add a variety of species including lions, tigers, black bears, panthers and giant otters to the zoo. “We’re redoing South America extensively,” Winsten elaborated. “We’re redeveloping the loop around rotation and skybridges. We’re redoing all our existing primate exhibits to have new experiences and skywalks that give them the chance to migrate. For our larger animals- Baird’s tapirs, capybaras, giant anteaters- we’re going to rotate them through habitats. We’re enclosing a section of the loop to recreate the rainforest experience a lot of zoos do in giant buildings. It’s going to have giant otters, a river bottom experience with South American fish and free-flying macaws. We’re then going to add lions to Africa and redo Wild Florida. Our train station would move to Wild Florida and free up space for a tiger exhibit.”

@ Brevard Zoo

While the zoo has ambitious plans, it also strives to stay within its means. “We’re very careful about keeping ourselves a half-day experience so we have to have a real reason to add things,” Keith Winsten commented. “Our competitive advantage is people can comfortably see the whole zoo and not be rushed. The average stay at our zoo is three and a half hours, about the same as almost every zoo. We have Europeans who spend seven hours at the zoo- they go kayaking, do the ropes course and ride the train. What’s different is the quality of experience- they’re not rushing.” He pointed to kayaking around Expedition Africa as one of the key draws of the zoo. “It is appealing to tourists who get to experience something completely unique,” Winsten noted. “It’s a peak experience.”

@ Brevard Zoo

@ Brevard Zoo

During Keith Winsten’s tenure, the Brevard Zoo has expanded on its animal wellness practices. “We’ve had a complete culture change around animal wellness led by Michelle Smur which appeals to the whole animal,” he remarked. “We’ve all embraced that and when you consider [animal wellness] the core function, you have to invest in good people working for you. We have a macaw team and tortoise team that really make a difference. Our keepers asked what makes the best quality of life for our macaws so now are perches are perch cities and contain more elements. We collect data to make sure the macaws behave the way they should and rotate the macaws though difference perches since their life is much more interesting when we do that. We have tortoises all around the zoo so we’re asking the same question there.”

@ Brevard Zoo

While many of the Brevard Zoo’s animals are possible, the superstars are definitely its giraffe herd. The giraffes can be viewed both through the elevated feeding deck and from kayaking around the African island. “Giraffes are really one of our signature species,” Winsten noted. “We do giraffe feeding very organically and have a lot of giraffes born.” When asked about the giraffe baby boom in the United States, he explained it through animal science. “Giraffe are really like a giant antelope,” Winsten explained. “Antelope breed fairly regularly and easily. We don’t publicize every time an impala is born but we do publicize every time a giraffe is born.”

@ Brevard Zoo

@ Brevard Zoo

In order to sustain itself, the Brevard Zoo is working to keep attendance high to allow the zoo to do bigger and better things. “We see ourselves really increasing the scale of our marine restoration work and need to grow attendance to sustain that,” Winsten stated. “We need to do an increasingly better job on animal welfare and keep the experiences fresh. It’s all about our ability [for visitors] to connect with animals and we’ve got to be beyond reproach in the care for our animals.”

@ Brevard Zoo

“I’m most proud of three things,” Keith Winsten concluded. “[First] I was pretty involved in giving birth to this new concept of nature play at zoos and aquariums. [Second] I felt a great sense of success when we reintroduced Perdido Key beach mice. [Last] we ended up getting a sales tax passed to protect the Indian River Lagoon. Those are all really worthwhile.”

@ Brevard Zoo

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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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© 2017 by Grayson Ponti