Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary closes its hospital

A supervisor quits the beleaguered nonprofit.
Published March 5 2013
Updated March 6 2013

INDIAN SHORES — The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary has closed its hospital after the resignation of the facility's supervisor.

The departure over the weekend of hospital supervisor Barbara Suto is the latest blow to the sanctuary, which has been pounded over the past year with financial calamities. Despite the ongoing bad news, operations manager Micki Eslick said the facility remains open for tours and officials are fundraising in an effort to turn things around.

"The hospital is closed at this time," Eslick said Tuesday. "If we get a bird in that we can take care of, i.e., take (a) hook out (or) something that is simple and can be released after … we will take care of. But anything long term, we are not taking."

The sanctuary was founded in 1971 by zoologist Ralph Heath. It became the largest nonprofit wild bird hospital in the United States, with emergency facilities, a surgical center and indoor and outdoor rehabilitation areas, according to its website.

But the sanctuary has had financial ups and downs over the years. The money situation turned desperate last year with the filing of three federal liens totaling about $186,726 for unpaid payroll taxes. Since then, the money problems have mounted, including a finding by the U.S. Department of Labor that the sanctuary had left some employees unpaid for weeks. The sanctuary agreed to pay $21,336 in back wages.

In January, a mortgage holder filed notice that he intended to foreclose on a sanctuary-owned warehouse on Starkey Road. Just last month, the state filed a tax lien of about $7,684 for failure to pay re-employment taxes.

The sanctuary announced at the end of January that it could no longer take in sick and injured birds but that it intended to stay open.

Then, over the weekend, Suto announced she was leaving. She could not be reached for comment Tuesday.

But a news release by Suncoast Bird Rescue, a group spearheaded by former sanctuary employee Robin Vergara, says that Suto has joined that group, which is seeking a location to open a new rehabilitation center.

Suto, it said, is a co-founder of the new rescue.

The release quotes Suto as saying: "I'm excited to be part of this new professional organization building a solid infrastructure and strong fundraising base of support. We aim to fill a critical void here in Pinellas County. This won't happen overnight, but we'll continue helping as many birds as possible by networking with other organizations until a full rehabilitation center is built."

Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.