WIMAUMA — On a warm and sunny morning at her farm, Lee Fox patiently feeds some sandhill cranes that were rescued with broken bones and injured beaks.
A baby crane abandoned at birth hungrily looks on, yapping for attention and chow.
In the next pen, a group of ospreys with singed feathers from flying too close to power plants and landfills await their morning meal. When the feeding is over, Fox patiently takes the cranes that have splints on their legs for a walk outside the pen, helping them maneuver one step at a time.
It's all in a day's work for a woman whose unwavering mission in life is to rescue, rehabilitate, and restore wild birds to their natural habitat in Tampa Bay. Fox has been helping her feathered friends in Tampa Bay for 28 years.
Fox has returned to helping birds at the Wimauma farm she shares with her husband, Paul, because of a controversial departure from the Save Our Seabirds sanctuary in Sarasota.
She parted ways with the organization she founded.
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Fox's wildlife rescue career began innocently when she and her husband first moved to Tierra Verde in Pinellas County in the 1980s.
At the time, the area was largely undeveloped, so the couple built a kind of farm on their property. During the building, Fox noticed numerous pelicans entangled with monofilament lines from area fishermen. She began volunteering at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores, first helping to rescue injured seabirds and then working long hours in its hospital to help rehabilitate them.
After a while, she felt so comfortable with the birds, Fox set up her own rescue sanctuary on her Tierra Verde property. It became known as the Pinellas Seabird Rehabilitation Center and over the course of 16 years she built it into a reputable organization.
When Tierra Verde became too crowded with homeowners, Fox and her husband bought property on County Road 579 in Wimauma and continued to care for rescued and injured birds until a call in 2008 from the city of Sarasota changed her life.
"I was asked by the city of Sarasota to give a proposal for what was once the former Pelican Man's Bird Sanctuary," Fox said. "It took over a year following that presentation, but I was handed the keys to the facility."
Subsequently, Fox became the executive director of the organization she founded there called Save Our Seabirds Inc., which she built into a successful nonprofit. She infused the rescue operation with education, training, research and oil spill rescue. In 1993, Fox saved dozens of oil-soaked seabirds after a collision of vessels dumped more than 300,000 gallons of petroleum into the mouth of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.
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Last year, she assumed the role of chief medical administrator and worked under Save Our Seabirds' new top administrator, David Pilston. He was selected by the SOS board of directors, and Fox said she had no role in Pilston's hiring. In April, a disagreement ensued between Fox, Pilston and the board. Fox was terminated from the organization she founded.
"Pilston wanted to get the credit for stuff that other people have done and he's been there less than a year," Fox said. "He hasn't been honest with the board of directors or their friends.
"Looking back, we needed to take some of the power away from the board of directors," Fox said. "They shouldn't have so much power that they can fire without just cause the sole person who founded the organization and helped it gain credibility and stature in the community, only to have it hijacked by an egoist," she said.
Fox said she feels as if she has been treated like a criminal. She said that all her information has been taken down from the Save Our Seabirds website and that she is not allowed access on the property to retrieve her belongings.
Fox said she's not sure why she was fired so abruptly but they took the ability away from her to rescue the volume of birds that needed her attention beyond SOS's Sarasota location.
"Rehabbers help each other," Fox said. I didn't hide anything. They limited me to five birds a week from other counties. I believe this was their opportunity to get rid of me."
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Pilston tells a different story.
He said that Fox was relieved of her duties in late April after she declined to renew a one-year contract that was offered to her by the board. He confirmed that Fox will not return to Save Our Seabirds because she has been too public with her problems there.
"Lee went to the press immediately and she said a lot of disparaging remarks about the board of directors and me," Pilston said. "We are putting together a meeting with our attorney and hers," Pilston said, "because we want to know why she is talking so publicly and telling everyone she was fired."
Pilston said her argument that the rescue and rehab mission of the organization has been undermined since he became executive director is an incorrect one.
"We are rescuing more birds than ever before," Pilston said. "Our hospital is hopping with over a hundred rescued birds a month, excluding babies, and our network of volunteers is bigger and more responsive than ever.
"We also want to help create the next generation of environmentalists by reaching out to schools and colleges and helping them understand and appreciate wildlife."
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Fox is doing her part to educate and inspire volunteers. She recently hosted a rehabilitation clinic for volunteers of the Tampa and Manatee Audubon Society and the Florida Department of Environmental Protection. She was assisted by the Wildlife Rescue Service of Florida and Tampa Bay's regional coordinator for the National Audubon Society.
The volunteers were shown how to rescue injured pelicans, ospreys and other birds that turn up frequently around and under the Sunshine Skyway Pier. The birds often become entangled and embedded with anglers' lines and hooks.
Fox said that because she is on her own now at the farm in Wimauma, she is using her money to buy all the crane chow, meat and fish for her injured birds, as well as medical supplies.
As for the future, Fox said she's content in Wimauma caring for her birds the way she wants to.
"I like being alone because nobody bothers me here and I'm doing what I do best, taking care of the birds."
Fox said that anyone who wishes to donate food and supplies can call her at home at (727) 251-9640. She noted that donations are not tax deductible because it isn't a nonprofit operation.
Kathryn Moschella can be reached at [email protected]