Make us your home page

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary operating under new name, new management

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary has reopened with a new name, Seaside Seabird Sanctuary, and new management. [JIM DAMASKE   |   Times] 

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary has reopened with a new name, Seaside Seabird Sanctuary, and new management. [JIM DAMASKE | Times] 

INDIAN SHORES — The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a Tampa Bay institution for 45 years, no longer exists.

In its place, thanks to a legal settlement, is a new organization operating in the same Indian Shores location. It's now called the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary.

"We have settled the lawsuits and reached an agreement to operate the sanctuary as a successor organization going forward with no affiliation with Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary," Kelly White, a spokeswoman for the new owners, said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times on Thursday.

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary was founded in 1971 by Ralph Heath Jr., the son of a prominent Tampa surgeon. He built it into the largest nonprofit wild bird hospital and sanctuary in the United States. But in recent years the sanctuary has suffered from financial woes, and Heath himself now faces charges that could lead to the loss of his licenses to possess and care for wildlife.

Meanwhile, sanctuary employees changed the locks and took other steps to keep Heath out of the sanctuary. In July, Heath's own children sued him to dissolve the sanctuary, arguing he had been taking money donated for the sanctuary and spent it on himself.

In a letter sent to donors that was dated Thursday, one of Heath's children, Andrew von Gontard, announced "a new path forward for our sanctuary," and unveiled the new name. The manager will now be former volunteer Eddie Gayton, he wrote.

"We know that we are stronger together, and that the birds deserve a brighter future," wrote von Gontard, whose mother is Busch family heir Beatrice von Gontard.

Heath, in a June interview with the Times, blamed his troubles on a conspiracy by developers to get hold of the sanctuary's waterfront land. His attorneys, Blake Whittemore and J. Andrew Crawford, did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.

In recent years, the sanctuary repeatedly missed making payroll. The electricity was briefly cut off for nonpayment. The IRS filed liens totaling $187,726 for unpaid payroll taxes, which Heath has said he's now paying off.

In 2013, the sanctuary's financial problems landed Heath in legal trouble. He was charged with workers' compensation fraud, but went into a pretrial intervention program and was able to avoid a formal finding of guilt.

Heath has twice run afoul of state wildlife regulations. The first time, in 2014, landed him on probation. Then, in May, he was again charged, this time over the possession and care of birds and turtles he was keeping in a Largo warehouse where state wildlife officers found rotting fruit, feathers and feces.

He was cited for possessing migratory birds with an expired license, trying to rehabilitate injured wildlife in an unapproved location and possessing box turtles without a permit. That misdemeanor case remains unresolved.

Contact Craig Pittman at [email protected] Follow @craigtimes.

Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary operating under new name, new management 09/22/16 [Last modified: Thursday, September 22, 2016 9:16pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

© 2017 Tampa Bay Times


Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

  1. Mandarin Hide celebrates 7 years serving craft cocktails in St. Petersburg

    Bars & Spirits


    With its mascot, a mounted buffalo head named Manny, decked out in streamers and a shiny party hat, the Mandarin Hide celebrated seven years of serving cocktails on Central Avenue last Thursday night.

    Mandarin Hide’s mascot, a buffalo head named Manny, donned streamers and a shiny party hat as the bar celebrated seven years of serving cocktails last week.
  2. Florida education news: Working conditions, school choice, teacher housing and more


    WORK CONDITIONS: Two teachers at a Pinellas County middle school request transfers out, saying the campus has become "hostile and racially charged." The …

    Pinellas Park Middle School
  3. Forecast: Break out those sweaters, Tampa Bay, as cooler weather just a day away


    Tampa Bay residents will finally be able to break out their sweaters and boots this week, but not until enduring yet another humid, rainy day to start the workweek.

    Tampa Bay's 7-day forecast. [WTSP]
  4. Justin Timberlake in Super Bowl halftime show for first time since 'wardrobe malfunction'


    Justin Timberlake has finally been invited back to the Super Bowl halftime show, 14 years after the "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson caused a national controversy.

    Singer Janet Jackson covers her breast as Justin Timberlake holds part of her costume after her outfit came undone during the halftime show of Super Bowl XXXVIII in Houston in 2004. The NFL announced Sunday, Oct. 22, 2017, that Timberlake will headline the Super Bowl halftime show Feb. 4 in Minnesota, 14 years after the "wardrobe malfunction" with Janet Jackson cause a national controversy. [Associated Press]
  5. Here's what happened when 30 high school sophomores gave up their phones for a day


    LUTZ — They were everywhere at Steinbrenner High School. Teens with panic-stricken faces, furiously slapping one thigh, then the other.

    Grace Hayes, 15, left, and Kai'Rey Lewis, 15, talk and text friends after having a discussion about smartphone technology in Tiffany Southwell's English Literature class at Steinbrenner High last week. Southwell asked theme to give up their phones for a day and write about it. For Lewis, the ride home that day "was the longest bus ride in my life." [OCTAVIO JONES   |   Times]