BAD-BAD-GOOD AT THE SEABIRD SANCTUARY
PAST AND PRESENT
INDIAN SHORES - STORIES FROM CHANNEL 8, WFLA TBO and other SOURCES
The world-famous Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary no longer has a working hospital or anyone to staff it after a weekend employee exodus triggered by the nonprofit’s financial problems and inability to care for sick and injured wild birds.
The sanctuary’s hospital supervisor, Barbara Suto, handed in her resignation Sunday after spending more than 30 years building the wildlife rehabilitation center into a widely respected organization renowned for its care of pelicans, raptors and other wild birds native to Florida. She said she hasn’t received a paycheck in 16 weeks.
Barbara Boger, who had faithfully cleaned out the pelican pools at 6 a.m. every day for the past four years, quit on Saturday for the same reason. She said she hadn’t been paid in 18 weeks.
In recent months, Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary’s financial problems under the leadership of founder Ralph Heath have reached a crisis level and prompted the departure of most of the staff.
☹️ The Internal Revenue Service filed liens against the sanctuary amounting to about $188,000 for unpaid payroll taxes.
☹️ The U.S. Department of Labor has ordered the sanctuary to pay more than $21,000 in back wages to workers, and the Florida Department of Revenue recently filed a lien for several thousand dollars for unpaid unemployment tax.
☹️ A private creditor also filed a foreclosure lawsuit based on an unpaid loan of $550,000 taken out by Heath several years ago. In January, Heath announced the sanctuary could no longer afford to rescue injured birds and said he was transitioning to a volunteer-based staff due to his charity’s inability to keep up with debts.
☹️ But Suto’s departure now means there is no one left at the sanctuary to carry on the core function of providing medical care for sick and injured birds — the sanctuary’s mainstay for decades. “You’ve got to be able to do it the right way, 100 percent, and with the financial difficulties of the sanctuary, it can’t be done anymore,” she said.
☹️ While the bird hospital is closed and the sanctuary isn’t taking in any rescued or injured birds, the sanctuary remains open and will continue caring for the birds that are there, said longtime manager Micki Eslick. “We’re going to try to get ourselves in order and continue moving forward,” and she would like to pay all the employees who haven’t been getting checks. “It would do my heart great because I feel bad for them,” she said. “I really do.”
☹️ Meanwhile, Robin Vergera, a former fundraiser and volunteer coordinator for the sanctuary, said he and Suto are founding a new organization called the Suncoast Bird Rescue. He has been sharply critical of sanctuary founder Ralph Heath and his business practices and has vowed to create a replacement charity.
UPDATED CHAOS and COURT
THE FINAL SOLUTION
INDIAN SHORES, Fla. (WFLA)
☹️ Legendary pelican rescuer Ralph Heath Jr who once told employees to regard him as the “King” of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, has finally been dethroned after ruling without restraint over that wildlife rescue charity at his family estate on Indian Shores for the past 45 years. The new organization operating at the same location on Indian Shores is now called the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary.
At his peak, Heath gained international fame as a seabird rescuer and champion of the environment. He married the granddaughter of August Busch, founder of the Anheuser-Busch beer empire. It wasn’t one of Heath’s many critics or enemies who eventually seized his crown.
☹️ After a lawsuit filed by Andrew Von Gontard (one of Heath’s sons who took their stepfather’s name) the sons took control of the charity after years of financial shenanigans, sex scandals, and legal troubles provoked by Heath’s wobbly, eccentric, and sometimes downright bizarre leadership of the bird rescue organization.
☹️ “Heath’s sons have settled the lawsuits and reached an agreement that allows the successor organization to take over the sanctuary,” said family spokeswoman Kelly White. Family members accused Heath of bringing the Sanctuary to its knees through years of mismanagement and outrageous behavior. The family’s list of alleged wrongdoing spelled out in a lawsuit reads like an anthology of our numerous Eight On Your Side investigative reports that began in 1996:
☹️ Sexually provocative nearly nude photo sessions of underage girls that Heath allowed on Sanctuary property, inside his Sanctuary-owned beach house bathroom and his hot tub.
☹️ Sanctuary employees who videotaped Heath filling buckets with daily cash donations and claimed he kept that money while refusing to pay them.
☹️ Cronyism on the Sanctuary board that allowed Heath to do as he pleased.
☹️ IRS tax liens for unpaid payroll taxes. S. Department of Labor sanctions for unpaid wages.
☹️ Repeated criminal charges and convictions by the FWC for animal neglect and abuse.
☹️ Heath’s operation of a 65-foot luxury yacht named Whisker, which was fitted with a hot tub that Heath purchased and operated with charitable donations intended to help injured seabirds. True to his word the hot-tub featured hot-chicks yet none were observed to have feathers. Most were naked as JayBirds. The Channel Eight investigation revealed that the sanctuary spent at least $1.7 million in charitable donations to purchase, refit and operate Whisker.
Heath called Whisker his “research vessel,” but a park ranger at Egmont Key who documented nude revelers aboard the Whisker told us he thought it looked more like a party boat to him. Whisker is now rotting away in dry dock at a Gandy Blvd boatyard and still accruing charity debt for unpaid storage fees.
FOR RALPH HEATH, JR
LARGO, FL (WFLA)
World-renowned wildlife rescuer Ralph Heath has a lot of explaining to do for what’s behind the steel doors of a windowless warehouse in Largo. That’s where FWC officers cited the son of the founder of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary with five criminal offenses for keeping a personal collection of wildlife locked up in “deplorable” conditions.
☹️ A Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission investigation sparked by a complaint of “abusive” and “disgusting” conditions has uncovered horrific conditions for captive wildlife inside Heath’s dark 35,000 square foot warehouse at 12388 Starkey Rd. A just-released criminal report details charges filed against Heath, a trained zoologist who has garnered worldwide fame since founding the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary on Indian Shores 45 years ago. Heath is on probation for animal abuse and neglect stemming from the FWC’s last raid on his warehouse in 2014.
☹️ The FWC turned over the turtles to Vernon Yates of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation for safekeeping. “All other wildlife found in the room on the second floor of the warehouse was relocated to more suitable areas on the property,” O’Horo wrote. Yates tells 8 On Your Side he is working with Heath to move all of the animals and birds outside “where they can see sunlight.”
☹️ The FWC is still consulting with Yates to determine whether more animals which are not directly protected by FWC regulations should be removed from the property. Lt. Steve Delacure says the FWC also plans to ask a Pinellas County judge to suspend or revoke Heath’s State wildlife rehabilitation license which Heath needs to operate the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary on Indian Shores. Heath’s federal wildlife rehabilitation license has expired and the FWC doubts he will be able to renew that permit.
☹️ Meanwhile, Heath will have to answer to a judge at the Pinellas Justice Center Thursday for violating his criminal probation stemming from charges of animal abuse and neglect two years ago in the same warehouse. As a condition of Heath’s probation order in 2014 he was ordered to obey state wildlife laws.
☹️ According to a violation of probation report filed with the Court, O’Horo reported “In one room, animals were being kept in deplorable conditions with dirty water and spoiled food. Fecal matter was everywhere.” Heath’s probation officer violated Heath based on the FWC officer’s account. “The defendant has failed to abide by the Florida Wildlife Commission regulations,” wrote probation officer Erik Marsteller just hours after the FWC raided the warehouse.
☹️ According to a state report obtained by Channel 8, On Your Side, the FWC seized of dozens of protected turtles from Heath’s locked warehouse in Largo—a shadowy and secure steel and concrete building that bears more resemblance to a super-max prison than a wildlife sanctuary.
NEW STAFF - NEW BEGINNINGS
NEW WINGS - NEW RESCUES - NEW FUTURE
In case you have not heard, the new Seaside Seabird Sanctuary received our 501 (c) (3) designation from the Internal Revenue Service. The status designates us as a public charity and allows donors to deduct contributions from their taxes.
It also solidifies our status as a successor organization to the previous entity and we hope it instills confidence in us as we continue our mission; to rescue, rehabilitate and release sick, injured or orphaned birds.
The 501 (c) (3) status allows us to receive tax deductible bequests, devises, transfers or gifts. It also allows us to receive donations through trusts and estates. We rely 100 percent on private donations to maintain operations. We hope you will consider donating to us this holiday season either online, by mail or in person at the sanctuary located at 18328 Gulf Blvd., Indian Shores, FL 33785.
Seaside Seabird Sanctuary has made changes including a new logo, website and new signs throughout the facility. We are also making improvements like new outdoor enclosure netting, repairs to our fence and general clean-up. We welcome you to come visit us to see for yourself!
We are currently working on plans for a grand opening of the new and improved facility. We will let you know as soon as the date is set and we hope you will be able to join us to celebrate our new organization.
Andrew von Gontard
President of Seaside Seabird Sanctuary.