The financially-beleaguered Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary has stopped taking in birds in need of help, the non-profit organization announced on its Facebook page on Wednesday.
"First we would like to say WE ARE NOT CLOSING!" the announcement said. It then went on to briefly describe the sanctuary's decision to drastically reduce the scope of its mission.
Micki Eslick, the operations manager at the sanctuary, responded to a reporter's questions about the decision via email Thursday.
"Due to limited resources, we will no longer be able to accept additional birds requiring rehabilitation," Eslick wrote. "We will be focusing on the care and completion of the rehabilitation process for the birds we currently have on property."
If, however, someone drops a bird off at the sanctuary, the staff will take the bird in and do its best to save it. "But until our funds improve we can no longer actively rescue any birds," Eslick wrote. Two staff members involved in bird rescues said they would take fishing line off a bird if they saw one in such a predicament, but only if the bird could then be immediately released.
There are currently 200 to 250 birds on the property, representing 65 different species, she said.
"We have been talking about not taking birds for a while now," Eslick wrote. But the discussion became a little more urgent because the staff realized "baby bird season is right around the corner," and the sanctuary's budget is such that the staff can't afford to feed a new slew of birds and their chicks.
"With less funds and employees we just can't take in like we used to," Eslick wrote.
At the sanctuary at 18328 Gulf Blvd., the free-flying species – great blue herons, white egrets, and pelicans – have already had chicks, Eslick wrote.
"The babies feed normally every 20 minutes to 1 hour every day and when you have upward of, let's just say, 10 birds in one cage, that is a lot of mouths to feed," she said.
The sanctuary's web site does not mention the decision not to take in any more birds, but continues to solicit donations. The sanctuary claims it takes in 25 to 40 birds a year, with an annual total exceeding 8,000.
News of the smaller operational scope comes at a time when the non-profit organization is reeling from a series of financial blows – a foreclosure action filed in Pinellas Circuit Court within the last couple of weeks, battles with the Internal Revenue Service over unpaid payroll taxes, and problems giving their staff back pay.
"The recession has really screwed with us, then you pile on the bad publicity," said Jerry Alan, who's on the sanctuary's board of directors. "It's gonna hurt your donations when you get bad publicity."
"I just know …everybody over there is dedicated and it's just a damn shame," Alan said. "I wish someone would win the lottery and give it to them." He said it costs $1.5 million to run the sanctuary annually.
The sanctuary essentially serves as a place in Pinellas County where people can bring injured birds they've happened to stumble upon, said Elizabeth Forys, a professor of environmental science and biology at Eckerd College. There are other sanctuaries for injured birds in cities such as, say, Sarasota, but the trek might be too long for the conscientious bird-lover.
"I can see someone not picking up a hurt bird because there's not a place to take it" she said.
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