Ralph T. Heath, Jr., the charismatic founder of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, once the largest nonprofit wild bird hospital and rehabilitation center in the United States, died Saturday. He was 76.
News of Heath’s death was confirmed by his attorney, Kevin Doty.
With a dedicated team of volunteers, Heath built the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary into the poster child for bird rehab facilities; in its heyday, the Indian Shores center took in some 45,000 injured, sick or maimed birds annually. Those deemed non-releasable lived out their lives in roomy, open-air pens on the site. Thousands of visitors toured the ever-expanding compound every year.
Heath and his birds were featured in National Geographic and the New York Times. Charles Kuralt devoted an entire episode of his TV series On the Road to him.
The one-time “Bird Man of Tampa Bay” had fallen on hard times following accusations of misusing and embezzling funds from the 1.5 acre facility. In 2016, he was relieved of his directorship by an investment group that included his sons, Andrew, Alex and Peter von Gontard, from Heath’s five-year marriage to beer heiress Beatrice Busch in the 1980s.
State wildlife officers had charged him with 59 misdemeanors over the way Suncoast was caring for its non-releasable residents, and rescinded his permit to treat migratory birds.
In a 2016 raid on a windowless Largo warehouse owned by Heath, police discovered dozens of birds – some with missing limbs, some blind – wandering the dark facility, and a collection of turtles in “deplorable” conditions, the floors thick with animal waste and rotting fruit.
Heath was charged with possessing migratory birds with an expired license, trying to rehabilitate injured wildlife in an unapproved location and other violations.
The son of a prominent Tampa surgeon, Heath opened the center in 1971 on the grounds of his family’s beach house.
“I had decided to be a well-educated beach bum,” Heath said in a 2010 interview with WMNF. “After about a seven-year college education, I said ‘I’m going to collect driftwood and make lamps.’”
Then he came across a cormorant by the side of Gulf Boulevard, dragging a badly broken wing. “My father had helped me take care of birds and animals and reptiles that were hurt over the years, because he was such an incredible surgeon,” Heath said. “But he was in Tampa.”
So Heath contacted a St. Petersburg veterinarian he knew. The doctor surgically repaired the wing with a steel pin, sewed the wound, and the seabird was on its way to mending.
“I’ve done my job,” he told Ralph Heath. “Now it’s up to you.”
In 1975, a pair of endangered brown pelicans successfully hatched a chick at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, the first such historical occasion for pelicans in captivity. Over the decades, nearly 200 pelicans were hatched and fledged at Suncoast, and released into the wild, by Heath and his staff, when they were old enough to fend for themselves.
The brown pelican was removed from the federal Endangered Species list in 1985.
Today, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission does not allow rehabbed pelicans to breed in captivity. Males and females, by law, are kept in separate pens.
After Heath’s sons and their company, Seaside Land Investments, had him removed, they changed the sanctuary’s name to Seaside Seabird Sanctuary, which still operates at the Indian Shores site.
This story will be updated as details become available.