With a court hearing set for next week on the dispute between its founder and his children , the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary has become a battleground.
The longtime bird hospital at 18328 Gulf Blvd. has been repeatedly rocked by license violations, financial woes and bad press. Yet the sanctuary, long a popular tourist attraction, has kept its doors open and is still treating injured seabirds, according to its current manager, Eddie Gayton III, 51.
Still, operating amid the uproar is anything but easy, he said. Gayton, who was one of the sanctuary's paid employees, was recently taken off the payroll and listed as a volunteer. Yet he's the one currently giving orders to the others.
However, he said, the owner of the sanctuary is still — "technically, legally" — founder Ralph Heath Jr., even though the staff has changed the locks to keep him out.
"It's a little bit more than awkward," said Gayton, who used to run a screen printing business before becoming a sanctuary volunteer six years ago. "But nobody's putting their heads down and saying they can't do this."
Heath, the son of a prominent Tampa surgeon, founded the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores in 1971 with a single injured cormorant. He spent decades building it into the largest nonprofit wild bird hospital and sanctuary in the United States.
At its height, the sanctuary had 28 employees, Gayton said. It drew more than 50,000 visitors a year, and Heath, known as Tampa Bay's Bird Man, was considered a beloved public figure.
Then came a series of missed payrolls, an IRS lien and a charge of worker's compensation fraud against Heath. That led to a mass walkout about three years ago, Guyton said.
Heath has also run afoul of state wildlife regulations twice. The first time, in 2014, led to him being put on probation. In the latest case, resulting from a May inspection, he faces charges over the possession and care of birds and turtles he was keeping in a Largo warehouse where inspectors found rotting fruit, feathers and feces.
Heath's children by his ex-wife, Beatrice von Gontard, an heir to the Busch family fortune, have been trying for five years to get him to step back from trying to run the sanctuary, according to Noel Booke, an attorney representing them. They took over a large debt that was hanging over the sanctuary, Booke said, preventing the place from facing foreclosure.
"They'd been trying to work out a graceful exit for Ralph," Booke said. "He wants to keep running the place."
Last month the tussle over the sanctuary's future moved to Pinellas-Pasco Circuit Court. The von Gontards, in a suit filed on July 15, said the sanctuary has now ceased operating and should be dissolved, its assets handed over to a trustee to evaluate and, if necessary, clean up or even dispose of it.
They brought up not only Heath's recent permit troubles but also allegations from 20 years ago about his allowing a pornographic website to use the facility as a place to take pictures of underage girls.
The von Gontards are also the ones bankrolling the sanctuary's continued operation, Gayton said.
"Ralph controls the mail and the bank accounts at this time," Gayton said. So when the sanctuary needs money, he said, the von Gontards provide it. According to court documents, the family has loaned the sanctuary more than $15,000 so far, but their attorneys say that if you add in the costs associated with the foreclosure and other legal actions, the total amount spent is in excess of $1 million.
What the family wants is to keep the sanctuary open, Booke said, but governed by a new entity that does not include their father.
"They don't have any plans to turn it into condos," the attorney said. "They want to return the sanctuary to its greatness."
Gayton recently obtained the state wildlife permits that allow the sanctuary to operate — a necessary step, since Heath's permits may now be canceled. A recent state inspection found deficiencies with some of the facilities, so they have fixed those, he said. And as with the injured wildlife, the tourists never stopped showing up.
"We're still getting visitors from all over the world to see the birds," he said. He could not provide an estimate of how many visitors there have been.
Heath, 71, has filed a motion to quash the suit, and the case is set for a court hearing on Aug. 18. His misdemeanor case on this year's permit violation has a pre-trial hearing scheduled for Aug. 17.
Last month, in a lengthy interview with the Tampa Bay Times, Heath said he was once told by a Seminole chief that he has "an aura, like radar" that birds sense, knowing he's a friend who can cure their ills. Perhaps they even "communicate with each other" about him, he said.
During an interview with the Times, Heath's attorney Kevin Doty warned his client that if the newspaper printed that, "they're going to come after you with a net."
Times senior news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report. Contact Craig Pittman at email@example.com. Follow @craigtimes.