Financial problems strain Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, the largest wild bird hospital in the country, has trimmed spending by laying off a quarter of its staff.

JIM DAMASKE | Times (2007)

The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, the largest wild bird hospital in the country, has trimmed spending by laying off a quarter of its staff.

INDIAN SHORES — The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary is running out of money and may soon be forced to drastically cut back its 39-year mission to rescue injured wild birds.

A $1 million budget shortfall last year forced the sanctuary to sharply cut back staff and limit program offerings.

Now, just two months into a new fiscal year, the institution's financial problems are getting worse, according to Michelle Simoneau, the sanctuary's marketing and public relations coordinator.

"This is just a perfect financial storm," Simoneau said.

The largest wild bird hospital and sanctuary in the country has no income stream and relies on donations to operate.

But, donations are down significantly, largely because of the recession, according to Simoneau.

At the same time, many expenses are up, particularly for flood and wind insurance, which has more than doubled in the last several years.

Then there was the sanctuary's recent unsuccessful battle with Redington Shores over building a flight cage for predatory birds.

"We wanted to continue to fight the town in court, but it would cost us at least $10,000 to $15,000 and for financial reasons, we decided not to do that," Simoneau said.

The sanctuary also sharply increased its monthly deliveries of fish from 600 to 800 pounds to feed a growing number of seabirds either rescued or flying in to beg for food.

The unusually cold winter has either killed off or forced fish to move to warmer waters, Simoneau said, leaving an increasing number of the area's population of seabirds to starve or become ill from trying to eat dead fish. Some birds are actually frostbitten from the cold.

"People are bringing in more birds and we're also seeing a lot of starving juveniles out in the field. The birds are extremely hungry. Some are even coming to us. They may have been released in the past and remember us," Simoneau said.

The financial difficulties began in 2008 when donations fell $410,353 short of covering program, administrative and fundraising costs.

Some 70 percent of money raised is spent on direct program costs, while about 20 percent is spent on salaries and other administrative costs, and about 10 percent on fundraising.

Last year, the sanctuary raised only $380,000 in donations to cover a $1.45 million operating budget.

Gifts and memberships from thousands of supporters and members range from $8 to $30 a year, but the total raised in recent years increasingly has fallen far short of meeting expenses.

Larger donations come from estates, bequests and trusts. The last big one happened in 2007 when the sanctuary received a $2.5 million bequest.

But that money is nearly gone.

As of this week, the sanctuary has only about $250,000 in the bank, just enough to carry the organization for about two months.

Simoneau said the sanctuary has cut spending by laying off a quarter of its staff, instituting a hiring freeze, and cutting back on operational expenses, including outreach programs at schools, recreational centers and at events.

"We are still meeting payroll, but we are definitely struggling," she said.

As the economy also continues to struggle as well, Simoneau is worried donations won't pick back up before the sanctuary uses up its reserves.

The next few months are the sanctuary's busiest time of the year.

"It's our baby bird season. But, if we have to cut back further, yes, we will have to turn birds away," Simoneau said.

Ralph Heath, a local zoologist, founded the sanctuary in 1971. The facility was the first to breed then-endangered eastern brown pelicans in captivity. Today, the sanctuary includes emergency facilities, a surgical center, bird injury recovery areas, and outdoor wild bird recuperation and flight cages.

The sanctuary is trying to sell some assets, including an aging yacht Heath once used to entertain contributors.

Simoneau also is organizing an April art dinner and silent auction she hopes will raise money for the sanctuary.

"Not only do we need financial support, we need the community behind us, not a bunch of commissioners who say they don't want us here. We are literally operating on a wing and a prayer," Simoneau said.

on the web

For more information about the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, go to the organization's Web site at seabirdsanctuary.com.

Financial problems strain Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary 02/16/10 [Last modified: Wednesday, February 17, 2010 5:28pm]

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