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The rise and fall of Ralph Heath’s Suncoast Seabird Sanctury

Bill DeYoung

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Ralph Heath in the 1970s. Florida Memory Project.

Between 2,500 and 3,000 wild birds arrive at Seaside Seabird Sanctuary every year, some dropped off in cardboard boxes by citizens who’ve discovered them injured or otherwise incapacitated, others picked up by volunteers on call, trained in the delicate art of handling large, frightened, feathered creatures in distress.

They all end up at the same 1.5-acre compound in Indian Shores, hard to spot between tall condo buildings on the beach side.

Hospital Director Melissa Dollard joined the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary team in 2017. Photo provided.

A majority of the affected avians are brown pelicans, synonymous with beach life and boating, with fish hooks piercing their fleshy throats or carelessly cast-off monofilament line wrapped around a leg or a wing and cutting off circulation.

Luckily, says Hospital Director Melissa Dollard, “injury due to fishing line and hooks is very treatable. If they’re starving or emaciated, that can complicate their care here. But with pelicans, we have about an 80 percent success rate. Sometimes higher, depending on the time of year.”

The worst areas for fishing-related pelican injuries, she adds, are the mangrove islands near the Sunshine Skyway Bridge. “Tourists go there to try it, but they don’t necessarily know what to do if they hook a bird,” Dollard says. “They just cut the line and send that bird on its way.”

Pelicans are often found hanging in the mangrove trees, tethered by old fishing line and dying from starvation and exposure.

It’s a day-to-day struggle for the seven-member Seaside family and their small army of volunteers.

Even as the sanctuary staffers continue the good work that’s been done on their little acre of sand for nearly half a century, there are reminders everywhere of someone whose name is never, ever mentioned.

Ralph Heath Jr. took in sick and injured birds at this very spot on the Gulf coast beginning in the early 1970s. For decades, his Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary was the largest not-for-profit wild bird sanctuary and rehabilitation center in the United States. More than 50,000 people visited every year, eager for a tour and the hope of a quick chat with Florida’s famous “Bird Man.”

Ralph Heath in the 1970s. Florida Memory Project.

The boyish, charismatic Heath was one of the best-known residents of Pinellas County. A tireless crusader for wildlife stewardship and conservation, he and the birds in his care were featured in National Geographic and the New York Times. Charles Kuralt devoted an On the Road episode to him; he appeared in newspapers and magazines the world over. He was feted, awarded and honored. Celebrities came to Florida just to be photographed with him.

In its heyday, Suncoast took in around 45,000 birds annually, from sparrows and blue jays to owls and bald eagles. They’d be brought in with broken wings or legs, or shot, or sick, or starving.

Or worse.

Permanent brown pelican residents at Seaside today. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

Heath, the son of a doctor, had a University of South Florida degree in pre-med zoology, and with the help of avian veterinarians and a staff just as dedicated to the cause, the birds would be patched up, re-assembled, rehydrated, rehabbed and – when it was time – released back into the wild. Those deemed non-releasable were given permanent homes in the large, open-air pens or roomy flight aviaries on the grounds, which, understandably, became a tourist attraction.

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary was a success story like no other. A nonprofit, it had no government pipeline and ran solely on donations. Since Heath owned the beachfront property – it had been his parents’ weekend getaway -there was no rent to be paid.

It was idyllic, until it wasn’t.

Heath was unceremoniously removed in 2016 following years of legal troubles, including an IRS lien on the property, continuing failure to pay his employees amid accusations of stealing from the sanctuary’s donation boxes (a clandestine video showed him doing just that, and stuffing the cash into his pockets). He’d spent $355,000 in sanctuary money on a yacht he referred to as a research vessel, but which was allegedly used mostly for pleasure cruises and parties. State wildlife officers charged him with 59 misdemeanors in 2014 over the way Suncoast was caring for its feathered residents, and rescinded his permit to treat migratory birds. Staffers and volunteers deserted him.

Most troubling was the evidence procured in a police raid on a windowless Largo warehouse owned by Heath. There, they discovered dozens of birds – some of them missing limbs, some of them blind – wandering the dark facility, and a collection of turtles in “deplorable” conditions, the floors thick with animal waste and rotting fruit. Heath, then 72, was charged with possessing migratory birds with an expired license, trying to rehabilitate injured wildlife in an unapproved location and possessing box turtles without a permit.

By the time of the raid, Heath had already been kicked out of 18328 Gulf Boulevard. He’d sold the family home, in 2011, to a Dallas-based company called Seaside Land Investments, LLC, which removed him, and the entity known as Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. They even changed the locks.

Three of the principals in Seaside Land Investments are Heath’s sons, Andrew, Alex and Peter von Gontard, from his five-year marriage to beer heiress Beatrice Busch in the 1980s. The boys eventually took the surname of their stepfather, Adel von Gontard. And together they set out to rehabilitate what was left of Pinellas County’s legendary bird sanctuary and its tattered reputation.

Andrew, Alex and their stepfather sit on the board of Seaside Seabird Sanctuary (Andrew is the president). They all reside out of state.

Director of Operations Keith Wilkins is quick to point out that Seaside Seabird Sanctuary is an entirely different entity, and has no tether whatsoever to Ralph Heath’s Suncoast.

There’s a large open-air rehab area hidden from public view – the state and federal Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission insist on that – and a walkable public section with 100 or so permanent, non-releasable residents.

As in Heath’s day, the sanctuary operates entirely on public donations.

The laws governing the care and captivity of wild birds, however, have grown more restrictive.

From left: Dollard, Avian Hospital Specialist Amy Nulph, Director of Operations Keith Wilkins. Photo by Bill DeYoung.

In 1975, a pair of crippled brown pelicans hatched a chick at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary – the first such event in history. The bird was, at that time, on the Endangered Species List. Over the decades, nearly 200 pelicans were hatched and fledged at Suncoast, and released into the wild when they were old enough to fend for themselves.

Wild pelicans even built their nests on the sanctuary site, on the very netting that was installed to keep them out of the captive pens. Birds of a feather and all that.

The brown pelican is no longer classified as endangered.

These days, Wilkins explains, “FWC does not allow birds in captivity to mate. We have two different pelican pens, one for the males and one for the females. Even though these are permanently disabled birds, any offspring they had would potentially be healthy. And we’re not legally allowed to hold onto a healthy bird, and put it on display to the public. It has to be released.

“We can’t immediately release a captive-hatched pelican; it needs to be raised by its parents to learn how to survive out in the wild. And even if FWC said well, OK, there’s an accident and you have two birds that mate, you’re allowed to keep it until it’s raised by the parents … the thing is, the parents can’t raise their young on how to properly survive in the wild in captivity.”

Wilkins, a Michigan native who worked for many years as a Florida concert promoter, started as a volunteer at Suncoast, shortly before Heath was unceremoniously asked to leave.

Only a few of Heath’s volunteers remain from those dark last days.

Although Wilkins is often asked to speak to local civic groups and wildlife organizations, he has little to no interest in becoming a celebrity spokesperson.

“Our main reason for being here is to rehabilitate birds,” he says squarely. “If we had to give up one or the other, it would be the attraction aspect. We would be here just to rescue, treat and rehabilitate birds.”

While the Seaside hospital director makes the determination that a disabled pelican, gull or wading bird can enjoy a good quality of life in captivity, FWC has the final say.

Fish and Wildlife reviews all of the sanctuary’s paperwork – “We have to report everything, like all rehabbers do,” Wilkins says – and periodic inspections double-check the facility itself.

Ralph Heath’s father, a prominent Tampa surgeon, bought the beach house in the 1950s for family weekends (the home itself is technically over the line in Redington Shores). When he was a kid, Heath used to say, theirs was one of the only buildings on the beach. You could look for a quarter mile, north or south, and not see another sign of human activity.

Over the years, he watched as the little concrete block home – and the bird rehab center he built on the north side of his dad’s lot – was dwarfed, one high rise at a time, until the beach itself wasn’t even visible from nearby Gulf Boulevard.

In a 2010 interview with WMNF’s Talking Animals, Heath described the sanctuary’s humble beginnings. In 1971, he explained, “I had decided to be a well-educated beach bum. After about a seven-year college education, I said ‘I’m going to collect driftwood and make lamps.’”

On December 3, he remembered, 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 veterinarian he knew in western St. Petersburg. The doctor surgically repaired the wing with a steel pin, sewed things up, and the little seabird was on its way to mending.

“I’ve done my job,” he told Ralph Heath. “Now it’s up to you.”

 

Have you found an injured bird? Seaside’s hotline is 727-391-6211.

This story was originally published in September, 2019 under a different headline.

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