tampabay.com

Seabird shelter closes for now

The founder says the sanctuary will reopen after the insurance bill is paid, but others aren't so sure.

By CRISTINA SILVA
Published February 9, 2007


INDIAN SHORES - The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a waterfront refuge for hundreds of injured wild birds, was shut down this week after it failed to make an insurance payment.

President Ralph T. Heath, who founded the rescue center more than 30 years ago, said a check was sent out last week and the shelter could reopen as early as this weekend.

But shelter employees and local environmentalists said rising operation costs, a decline in donations and general mismanagement have left the sanctuary struggling to make ends meet. They say the sanctuary is in desperate need of financial help and could be shut down permanently within the next four months.

The Suncoast is one of a handful of wildlife sanctuaries in central Florida. If it closes, wildlife specialists say it could be impossible to find an alternative home for its 1,000 birds.

Heath said government officials made him close down the shelter Wednesday over a late workers' compensation insurance payment. Employees were asked to volunteer their time, and the sanctuary was closed to visitors.

He declined to state how much the sanctuary owed or which government agency demanded that he close.

Heath attributes the Suncoast's financial problems to a drastic loss of baitfish in local waters as a result of Red Tide, hurricanes and overdevelopment.

Consequently, the shelter has had to take in more birds, and the shelter has had to buy more fish.

In the past year, the cost of fish has jumped from 19 cents to a $1 a pound, Heath said.

"The bills are going up," he said. "Everything is more."

But the Suncoast's finances have been in dire straits for some time, Internal Revenue Service records show.

For the past seven years, the charity's expenditures exceeded revenue by about $2.5 million.

The charity was criticized for purchasing a 54-foot luxury sailboat in 2004 it claimed would be used as a research vessel.

In August 2006, Heath took some heat after a WFLA-Ch. 8 investigation revealed he had allowed a pornographic Web site to take pictures of barely clothed underage girls on the sanctuary property.

Later that year, Suncoast took out a second mortgage from Robert and Sandra Luke, a Madeira Beach couple who lent it $40,000, according to Pinellas County Court public records.

Robert Luke would only say that his wife worked at the sanctuary and declined to comment further when contacted by a reporter Thursday evening.

Heath said he was not up to date on the sanctuary's finances and referred any questions about spending to sanctuary spokeswoman, Suzanne Gilmore-Sakal. Gilmore-Sakal did not return repeated calls for comment made by the Times.

But Ron Lijestrand, who has worked as a donation coordinator at the charity for a number of years, said the Suncoast struggled to pay its electricity and insurance bills this year.

"It is very embarrassing, and it's very hard for everyone involved in the organization to be going through something like this," he said.

The Suncoast's future has grown so bleak that Melinda Lindsey, president of Earthfriends, a nonprofit group, moved into a house on the sanctuary's property last week in the hopes of saving it. Lindsey, who paid the shelter $8,000 in rent so it could continue to feed its animals and handle basic day-to-day costs, has started an emergency fundraising campaign to benefit the charity.

"It is a complete mess," she said. "They estimate that they only have about four months left here to survive."

Daniel Borochoff, president of the American Institute of Philanthropy, a Chicago charity watchdog group, said donors should demand Suncoast draft a credible budget plan before sending the organization money.

"Otherwise, as a donor, you might as well be throwing your money into the ocean," he said. "If they are so hard up that they can't pay their workman's comp, it is not clear that they can continue as a charitable organization."

It could be difficult to find an alternative home for the sanctuary's birds. There are only a few large sanctuaries in the area, and many have experienced financial stress recently because of a decline in donations, said Ethel Buchbinder, president of the Lucky Parrot Sanctuary in Naples.

Most recently, the Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary in Sarasota closed in December after rumors circulated that its owner had been using donation money to cover personal gambling debts.

If the Suncoast closed, many of its birds would probably have to be euthanized, Buchbinder said.

"I don't know of any place that can take all those birds," she said.

Times news researcher Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.