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Ralph Heath, founder of beloved Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, dead at 76

Sanctuary credited with helping brown pelicans escape near extinction.
Ralph Heath in 2005 with a brown pelican, one of 56 that went to Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary after being displaced when Hurricane Dennis swept through the Florida Panhandle.
Ralph Heath in 2005 with a brown pelican, one of 56 that went to Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary after being displaced when Hurricane Dennis swept through the Florida Panhandle. [ Tampa Bay Times (2005) ]
Published Oct. 6

Ralph T. Heath Jr., whose decades of work at the beachside bird rescue he founded in Pinellas County brought him national attention, died Saturday, the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary said in a statement. He was 76.

Heath organized what was then called the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in 1971 and grew it into what was reportedly the largest nonprofit wild bird hospital and sanctuary in the U.S. It also became a popular attraction, drawing generations of visitors to see the herons, egrets, ospreys and eagles recuperating yards from the Gulf of Mexico.

The sanctuary’s success with breeding permanently injured, captive brown pelicans is credited with helping bring that species — now the official bird of St. Petersburg — back from near extinction in the late 1970s.

A 1980 feature in the New York Times described 70 of the then-endangered pelicans “cavorting and splashing in blue plastic wading pools” on a “sun-bleached acre” of Indian Shores.

Heath was forced out of the sanctuary in 2016 after his children accused him of mismanaging the nonprofit’s finances and donations. It has operated with new management as the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary ever since.

Heath was the subject of the 1982 nonfiction book The Birdman of St. Petersburg by author Tom Shachtman. He was also the basis for the lead character in the Harlequin romance novel Song of the Seabird, a 1986 Tampa Tribune article said.

Heath’s appreciation for healing animals started as a young boy, he told the then-St. Petersburg Times in 1986. He’d bring home injured squirrels and tortoises to his father, a prominent surgeon in Tampa, who’d help patch them up.

Heath earned a zoology degree from the University of South Florida in 1969. The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary started when Heath, then 25 and a self-described “beach bum,” spotted a cormorant dragging an injured wing along Gulf Boulevard. He brought the bird to a veterinarian, who placed a metal pin in its wing.

Ralph Heath with a brown pelican at Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in 1986.
Ralph Heath with a brown pelican at Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in 1986. [ Times (1986) ]

He brought the bird home to his family’s beach bungalow in Indian Shores and went to buy some bait to feed it. The bait man told him someone had found a hurt seagull. Within a week, two more seabirds were recovering at the house.

Within a couple of years, there were volunteers, paid employees and hundreds of thousands of dollars in annual donations. The sanctuary grew around the family’s home, with the eventual addition of a hospital and multiple aviaries.

The need for a large facility where people could bring birds injured by fishing hooks, power lines, cars or litter may seem obvious now. But in 1973, the St. Petersburg Times called the sanctuary “Pinellas County’s first organized, planned effort to cope with ever-growing numbers of injured and ailing birds in this area.”

For decades, reporters documented Heath’s efforts: caring for baby pelicans displaced by a hurricane, finding homes for roosters rounded up in Key West, arranging a flight for an egret that had survived a drive to Pennsylvania trapped in the bumper of a van that struck it in Florida.

But by the early 2000s, the sanctuary, which was said to be bringing in more donations than ever, was struggling financially. Local news stories highlighted questions over Heath’s spending and his personal use of donations, including buying a luxury yacht.

The years that followed brought lawsuits over unpaid loans, liens over unpaid taxes and a mass employee exodus over unpaid wages. In 2014, the sanctuary was cited over improper cages, failure to provide clean drinking water to 78 turtles and failing to keep a daily log of animals. Eight captive seabirds were found in such poor health they had to be euthanized.

In 2016, Heath was cited for possessing migratory birds with an expired license and trying to rehabilitate injured wildlife in an unapproved location after wildlife officers searched his Largo warehouse and said they found it filthy with rotting fruit, feathers and feces.

A non resident pelican hangs out at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores in 2013.
A non resident pelican hangs out at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores in 2013.

Heath’s children sued him to dissolve the sanctuary that year, accusing him of spending donations on himself.

Writer Sarah Gerard, in an essay for her collection Sunshine State, captured the scene as Heath, estranged from friends and family, tried to keep the facility afloat shortly before his ouster.

And she wrote of his continued love for the birds.

“I watched him cry for seventy-two hours straight over Snowball dying,” Gerard quoted an employee as saying. “That was a pigeon.”