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Vero family’s $5 million donation boosts Brevard Zoo’s fund for new aquarium

STORY BY STEVEN M. THOMAS (Week of December 14, 2023)

On a charmed day last spring, Sara and David Scaife hopped in their car at their oceanfront home in Sanderling on the northern stretch of the barrier island and went for a drive to visit the Brevard Zoo.

“We like zoos and visit them throughout the country when we travel,” Sara Scaife told Vero Beach 32963 last week. It was their first visit to the Brevard zoological park 52 miles north of Sexton Plaza, and “we immediately thought, wow, this is a great little zoo,” she continued.

“We were especially impressed by the wonderful volunteers we spoke with. They were so friendly and knowledgeable in a way that was truly special. We were very moved by that.”

How moved?

Enough that they decided, more or less on the spot, on the basis of a single springtime visit, to donate $5 million to help fund the regional aquarium the zoo plans to build on the shore of the Banana River across from the cruise terminal at Port Canaveral.

The couple found out about the aquarium plan during their visit when they saw “a big, beautiful sign” that showed renderings of the 14-acre research and recreational complex.

Turns out the Scaifes are members of the Mellon family out of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Sara was on the board of the Pittsburgh Zoo and Aquarium for many years before their recent move to Vero Beach.

So the couple looked at the aquarium renderings with savvy eyes, and had the money to contribute handsomely toward what they intuitively felt would be a transformational project.

Sara and David Scaife run the Scaife Family Foundation, which gives to organizations focused on animal welfare, the wellbeing of women and children, and help for addiction. The foundation has given grants to 26 organizations in the past two years, including gifts to Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society and Phipps Conservatory & Botanical Gardens.

It is another measure of how moved Sara and David were by their visit to Brevard Zoo that their $5-million gift was greater than the total of all the other 2022 and 2023 grants combined.

“It was an incredible and inspirational gift,” said Keith Winstein, executive director of the East Coast Zoological Society, which owns and operates Brevard Zoo and is building the new aquarium. “It has attracted a lot more gifts.

“After their visit, the Scaifes reached out to our head of philanthropy, Dr. Ellen Winter, and she worked with them to find out what kind of change they wanted to effect in the world.

“It is always a two-way conversation with our donors,” Winstein continued. “We want them to have as much joy in giving as we have in receiving.”

The upshot of the conversation was that the Scaifes’ gift will fund a new sea turtle hospital at the regional aquarium. The zoo has a longstanding sea turtle treatment and rehabilitation facility but it is not open to visitors. The upcoming Scaife Family Sea Turtle Care Complex will be a cornerstone of the aquarium, according to Winstein, and will be open to the wide-eyed public.

“The 13,000-square-foot, cutting-edge complex will feature a state-of-the-art hospital facility equipped with advanced rehabilitation and veterinary clinical capabilities and an outdoor lagoon habitat that will provide long-term sanctuary for rehabilitated turtles that cannot be released due to permanent health conditions,” according to announcement of the gift.

“The generosity of the Scaife Family is fundamental to the successful completion of this Aquarium and the thousands of sea turtles our veterinary team will continue to help and save each year,” Winsten said.

The hospital will feature “large viewing windows into a working treatment center and rehabilitation area [giving] ... guests a unique opportunity to observe turtles’ care in real time, from the nutrition and enrichment provided by trained volunteers to life-saving exams, blood and toxicology tests, and treatments conducted by the Zoo’s board- certified veterinary staff. This experience will foster empathy for sea turtles and encourage a deeper understanding of the critical conservation efforts being undertaken to protect them,” according to the announcement.

“The Atlantic coast of Brevard County [and Indian River County] is one of the most important areas for sea turtles globally. Five of the world’s seven sea turtle species – green, loggerhead, leatherback, hawksbill, and Kemp’s ridley – utilize the county’s ocean and waterways, and its beaches are the world’s largest hotspot for loggerhead nesting. All sea turtles are considered endangered under the Endangered Species Act.”

“The new facility will empower our team to respond swiftly and decisively to the urgent needs of endangered sea turtles suffering from pollution-related ailments,” said Dr. Trevor Zachariah, director of veterinary programs and wildlife rehabilitation at the Zoo. “The public visibility of this work will educate and inspire people to care for our environment and consider the consequences of actions that could contribute to pollution in our waterways.”

“We are just two people who enjoy the outdoors; we like boating and fishing and we love the beach environment,” Sara Scaife told Vero Beach 32963. “Our family has a tradition of supporting zoos throughout the United States. This project will only enhance Brevard Zoo’s reputation as a must-see destination. In addition to being a source of fun for families [and an important center for lagoon conservation], the new aquarium will also serve as a major driver for regional economic development.”

The Scaifes are newcomers to 32963 and said the aquarium grant is their first major gift since moving to Florida.

“We purchased our home in 2021 but didn’t move permanently until May 2022 after our daughter graduated high school in Pittsburgh,” Sara Scaife said. “We waited for her to finish before making this our home.

“We had been planning to move to Florida for a while and spent a lot of time over the course of three or four years looking at different places. Early on, we eliminated the state’s west coast because we wanted to be close to my mother-in-law who lives in West Palm.

“We focused on the east coast and had our eyes on a number of places from The Keys to Coral Gables to Palm Beach and Vero. We finally picked Vero Beach and we love it here. It has everything you could ask for but is still small and charming. We are very happy.”

Brevard Zoo is a 75-acre nonprofit facility located on North Wickham Road in Melbourne that is home to more than 900 animals representing more than 195 species from Florida, South America, Africa, Asia and Australia. Opened in 1994, it frequently ranks in polls among the top 10 zoos in the country.

Spread out on 14 acres of Port Authority land on the shore of the Banana River, the aquarium is designed to be “a series of habitat adventures we take you on.

“We will walk you through the dunes as you enter and then take you through the whole sea turtle complex, to see animals in rehab and those ready to go back into the ocean.

“There is an outdoor shark experience where it is like you are walking in the flats with them swimming around you and you can actually get in the water with the rays.”

The aquarium will also include a three-story science center with wet labs and other facilities for visiting scientists from universities doing research along the Indian River Lagoon; labs and classrooms for students as part of a high-powered educational program; meeting space for volunteer groups and nonprofits focused on lagoon health; and a manatee rescue and rehabilitation center.

The aquarium is projected to attract approximately 500,000 visitors a year and one dollar from each admission will go to fund lagoon research and restoration.

Long known as the most biodiverse estuary in the United States, with more than 4,000 plant and animal species, the 120-mile-long Indian River Lagoon has been heavily impacted by pollution in the past decade, resulting in massive fish kills, marine mammal deaths, and loss of water clarity and seagrass.

“As far as I know, ours is the only aquarium in the country that will spring up in the midst of the ecosystem it aims to rescue,” Winstein said. “Most aquariums are big concrete boxes that have to deal with winter, but ours will be much more immersive, putting people into the ecosystems instead of having them looking at animals through acrylic barriers.”

Two years into a five-year, $100-million capital campaign, the zoo has raised $71 million, including $16.5 million in government grants and $54.5 million in private donations.

Winstein said there have been a number of gifts from Indian River County, including another “large gift,” in addition to the Scaife’s donation. He expects to break ground on the aquarium next year and to complete the project in 2027.