INDIAN SHORES — The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, a haven for the sick and injured for four decades, can no longer afford to take in new birds.
Sanctuary officials aren't ruling out a turn in the financial situation that would allow them to again accept sick birds. But a board member says it would take a miracle to get the local institution back on its feet.
"The miracle for the birds needs a miracle," sanctuary board member Jerry Alan said.
Alan said the facility has had more than its share of troubles recently and board members have tried to find ways to stop the slide. The group, he said, was hampered by a lack of fundraising skills and publicity that scared off donors.
"I just really don't have an answer," Alan said. "If someone knows how to raise a couple of million bucks, that'd be cool."
In an email to the Times on Wednesday, operations manager Micki Eslick said:
"First, I would like to say we are not closing.
"Due to limited resources, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary is no longer able to accept additional birds requiring rehabilitation. We will be focusing on the care and completion of the rehabilitation process for the birds we currently have on property.''
She added that the facility would do its best for any birds dropped off at the site but would no longer actively rescue them.
Sanctuary founder/director Ralph Heath could not be reached for comment.
"This is really, really, really, really bad for the birds," said environmental activist and Clearwater Audubon Society member Lorraine Margerson. "There's just no place to go like them."
The impact, Margerson said, will also be felt far outside the Tampa Bay area because the sanctuary has regularly taken in birds from elsewhere.
"It is a disaster for bird conservationists," Margerson said.
Heath, 67, a zoologist, founded the sanctuary in 1971. It has gained a reputation as a model avian rehabilitation center known the world over. The main property, 18328 Gulf Blvd., has emergency facilities, a surgical center and indoor and outdoor rehabilitation areas.
Sanctuary literature says up to 10,000 wild birds (159 species) are treated each year. More than 80 percent of the birds that survive the first 24 hours are released back into the wild. It claims to be the largest and most successful wild bird hospital in the United States.
Nine of 10 birds are treated for injuries caused directly or indirectly by humans: gunshot wounds, entanglement in fishing tackle, and poisoning by pesticides and environmental pollution. The most common problems found among seabirds and the Eastern brown pelican are from fishhooks and fishing lines.
Suncoast Seabird also is known for its captive breeding of the Eastern brown pelican. It has been featured on the Today Show and 20/20.
The sanctuary is supported by donations. The most recent records filed with the Internal Revenue Service showed it had revenues of about $1.47 million and expenses of about $1.44 million for 2010.
But the sanctuary has had problems — many monetary — throughout the years.
Last year, the IRS filed three liens totaling $187,726 for unpaid payroll taxes. Those remain unpaid, according Pinellas County records.
Also last year, the U.S. Department of Labor concluded the sanctuary had not paid some employees for weeks. The sanctuary agreed to pay $21,336 in back wages for nine employees.
The sanctuary also fell behind on payments to the company that supplied fish for the birds. Progress Energy cut off the power for nonpayment on Jan. 7 but restored it when the sanctuary paid part of the bill and arranged to pay the rest, company spokesman Sterling Ivey said. The bill is in good standing now.
Last week, a creditor filed suit to foreclose on land the sanctuary owns at 12388 Starkey Road near Largo. The creditor, Ronald J. Cooper, alleges the sanctuary and Heath owe him $550,000. Cooper also is asking for unpaid interest, damages and attorney fees. He wants the land to be sold at a foreclosure sale. The property is used for storage and housing for some birds.
Heath also has faced a heavy barrage of personal criticism and charges of inept leadership from at least one group that wanted him booted out so it could take over operations at the sanctuary.
The sanctuary has tried to recover.
Heath, who owned some of the beachfront sanctuary land, transferred several parcels to a for-profit company formed by two of his sons last year. The property, which had been tax exempt, went on the tax rolls. Heath's sons have unsuccessfully appealed the decision to tax the property. A final decision from the county's Value Adjustment Board is pending. The Pinellas County property appraiser has assessed the sanctuary property at about $952,200.
Employees have been let go. Nine of the sanctuary's permanent residents that could not be released into the wild were donated to the Jacksonville Zoo.
Barb Walker, program coordinator for Osprey Watch, said the decision to close the doors to injured birds is "probably for the best."
"It's very, very expensive to take care of sick and injured birds," Walker said.
She echoed Margerson in saying that the decision will make things difficult for bird lovers, especially with baby bird season about to start. That's when a large number of birds get hurt.
Walker said she hopes the vacuum will be filled by someone else.
"It may be time for another (sanctuary) but it would need community support," she said.
Anne Lindberg can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8450.