INDIAN SHORES — The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary got a welcome infusion of cash recently from a surprising source.
The $100,000 check was from the Embassy of Qatar in Washington, D.C.
Ralph Heath, a local zoologist who founded the sanctuary in 1971, picked up the check in person from Ambassador Mohamed Bin Abdulla Al-Rumaihi.
"He was very gracious and we spent two hours in his office,'' Heath said. "I could tell they love birds and animals."
He said the donation was totally unexpected.
More than a year ago, at the urging of a friend in the State Department, Heath wrote to the Qatar ambassador, asking for help in the sanctuary's effort to provide a safe place for rescued birds during a hurricane.
"I didn't know them, but knew that people in the Middle East love birds and have a 2,000-year history of falconry,'' Heath said. "I also knew Qatar has a close relationship with the U.S."
He didn't hear anything back and forgot about the letter.
Then, just a few weeks ago, he got a call from the embassy saying there was a check waiting for him. Heath promptly went to Washington, accompanied by a baby pelican born at the sanctuary.
"This donation will go a long way in providing crucial supplies and shelter for the birds we treat," Heath said.
The money will be used primarily to strengthen a shelter in Largo that the organization uses as temporary evacuation headquarters for birds during hurricane events.
"We have had to evacuate twice in recent years,'' Heath said. "When we thought Hurricane Charley was headed our way in 2004, we moved every single bird from the sanctuary. It was not easy."
Most of the $100,000 from Qatar will be used to strengthen the Largo shelter's roof and windows, he said, a project he expects to be completed in about a month.
The money will also be used to buy emergency medical supplies and fuel for generators to keep fish and other items refrigerated during power outages.
Heath said that recently the sanctuary had an "explosion" of dozens of pelicans born there, some from permanently injured birds who cannot return to the wild and many from pelicans who were treated and released in the past and now return to nest.
The organization's annual budget is over a $1 million and is dependent entirely on donations, which slowed the past few years.
"It's always a struggle to keep the bills paid," he said.