Tuesday, January 16, 2018
News Roundup

Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary operating under new name, new management

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.

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