Keith Winsten’s Impact
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Keith Winsten’s Impact

Keith Winsten’s Impact Brevard Zoo Executive Director Rallies Support for Aquarium

You have to smile when you learn the reason Keith Winsten was running late to a recent meeting at the Brevard Zoo. Ok, so it was the weekend and his day off. But he also had to stop the car to relocate a roaming gopher tortoise to the scrubland.

Winsten’s impact reaches from the smallest creatures to people worldwide. After 14 years as executive director of the Brevard Zoo, he’s tirelessly led so much change. Well maybe not tirelessly. His wife says he’s a world-class napper.

Winsten currently is overseeing a $4.4 million project taking shape at the zoo’s South American loop. The Rainforest Revealed exhibit will open in November with some new giant otters, the Venom House — the first time the zoo will have venomous snakes — and a small aquarium. Sky trails will give primates there access to move around among different habitats.

Guests also will see spider monkeys doing cognition work at a new research cognition center.

But a much bigger aquarium is the plan, too. So big that building the vision has it situated on 14 acres at Port Canaveral. 

Both the zoo’s rainforest exhibit aquarium and the larger one planned at the Port will help connect locals and visitors to the health of the Indian River Lagoon.

“We have all these amazing resources,” Winsten said. “But we have something I think we will all be able to take our family to, it will keep a light shined on the lagoon and how we have to keep attention paid to that. And it will make us a better tourist destination. You combined all of that and you have something everyone will benefit from. It’s really good.”

Winsten knows it will take a big effort to make the big aquarium happen. Someone already stepped up — to the tune of $14 million. An anonymous donor has pledged an amount that surpasses the $10 million county commissioners have approved from tourist taxes. But it will take everything Winsten has to rally the community and raise the rest of the $70 million to $100 million needed to bring that vision to life. 

Projections are that the aquarium could bring a $90 million impact and create more than 900 new jobs.

“I think the aquarium has a lot of potential, but we have to get a lot of people involved,” Winsten said. “It could be everybody donating $10, but we need a lot of help to get there, that’s for sure.”

Early Love For Nature

Winsten’s love for animals started young.

“I was 6 years old, one of my sister’s best friends gave me a pair of garden snakes as a birthday present,” he said. “I think it was to torment my mother and I became obsessed with reptiles.” 

Before coming to Brevard, Winsten — who has a B.S. in biology from Yale University and a M.S. from University of Illinois — worked at nature centers in New York and Massachusetts and at zoos in Rhode Island and Chicago. His work in conservation education and exhibit development has earned numerous awards, and he has helped develop training programs for zoo professionals in the United States, Brazil and China.

Running the Brevard Zoo while also meeting with officials and experts about the new aquarium means Winsten moves at a constant pace. 

“I don’t try,” Winsten’s wife, Marlene, said of trying to slow him down. “I gave that up years ago.”

The couple’s three kids have picked up on dad’s love for nature, too. Molly, 26, George, 23, and Lily, 15, have grown up around the zoo. A recent zoo visit with the sisters included a chat with a staff member who the family has known for years.

“When I was younger, I used to try to convince myself that dad wasn’t cool, but now I see everything he’s done, and he is most definitely cool,” Molly Winsten said.

The community agrees, as Keith Winsten has been honored with various awards. One of the most recent came in February when LEAD Brevard announced him as the Rodney S. Ketcham Leadership Icon Award recipient during the 15th anniversary of the 4 and Under 40 leadership awards. It’s presented to an individual who demonstrates a history of vision, service and leadership for the betterment of Brevard. 

Winsten also received the Solomon Portrait of Excellence in 2017, presented by the Space Coast Tourist Development Council. Awarded annually since 1994, it recognizes community leadership that positively impacts the tourist industry and economy on the Space Coast.

All its director’s efforts keep the zoo in high esteem. U.S. News & World Report includes Brevard Zoo in its 2019 list of the country’s 30 best zoos — out of close to 500.

And an aquarium just takes the legacy Winsten has helped build to another level. The 14-acre site on the Banana River includes plans for outdoor recreational space and 130,000 square feet for a “mid-size” aquarium and research center. Most of the animals will be local.

“We think about 525,000 people every year (will visit),” Winsten said. The Brevard Zoo draws about 475,000. “Our location is great, right off (State Road) 528 where all the beach tourists come into Cape Canaveral and Cocoa Beach.”

Winsten hopes support — vital to raise millions more dollars — will expand as people come to understand how an aquarium can add “real value” to the area.

“We’re always trying to get bigger and better,” he said. “It’s grow or die, that’s always the case.”


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