End of the voyage? Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary hospital chief out - WFLA News Channel 8

End of the voyage? Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary hospital chief resigns with two others in Indian Shores

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In better days the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder Ralph Heath invested more than a million dollars in 65 foot luxury yacht called Whisker that was equipped with five luxury stateroom, satellite TV and a hot tub. Heath said it was his “research vessel” In better days the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder Ralph Heath invested more than a million dollars in 65 foot luxury yacht called Whisker that was equipped with five luxury stateroom, satellite TV and a hot tub. Heath said it was his “research vessel”
INDIAN SHORES, FL (WFLA) -

The world-famous Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores no longer has a working hospital or anyone to staff it following an employee exodus this weekend prompted by failing finances and the inability to provide quality care for sick and injured wild birds.

The sanctuary's hospital supervisor Barbara Suto handed in her resignation Sunday after spending more than 30 years building the wildlife rehabilitation center into a widely respected organization renowned for its care of pelicans, raptors and other wild birds native to Florida.

"It's very difficult," Suto said. "I've been caring for these birds a long time."

Suto said her decision to quit the sanctuary after three decades of work boiled down to her own financial survival. 

Suto said she hadn't received a paycheck in 16 weeks. "I can't continue to support myself," she said. 

Suto said she also felt she could no longer deliver a suitable level of care to carry on her life's work at the sanctuary.

"You've got to be able to do it the right way 100% and with the financial difficulties of the sanctuary it can't be done anymore," said Suto.

Suto spoke Sunday from a national conference she helped organize in Portland, Oregon for the National Wildlife Rehabilitators Association.

Robin Vergera, a former fundraiser and volunteer coordinator for the sanctuary said Suto is joining him as a founder of a new organization called the Suncoast Bird Rescue.

Vergera has been sharply critical of sanctuary founder Ralph Heath and his business practices and has vowed to create a replacement charity.

He is now in talks with the city of Largo to create a wildlife rehab center at McGough Park.

In recent months Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary's  financial problems under Heath's leadership have reached a crisis level and prompted the departure of most of the staff.

The Internal Revenue Service filed liens against the sanctuary amounting to about $188,000 for unpaid payroll taxes, the U.S. Dept. of Labor has ordered the sanctuary to pay more than $21,000 in back wages to workers, and the Florida Department of Revenue recently filed a lien for several thousand dollars for unpaid unemployment tax. 

A private creditor also filed a foreclosure lawsuit based on an unpaid loan of $550,000 taken out by Heath several years ago.

In January Heath announced the sanctuary could no longer afford to rescue injured birds and said he was transitioning to a volunteer-based staff due to his charity's inability to keep up with debts.

But Suto's departure now means there is no one left at the sanctuary to carry on the core function of providing medical care for sick and injured birds which has been the sanctuary's mainstay for decades.

Matthew McDermott, who provided day to day care and feeding of hundreds of birds at the sanctuary said he also resigned Sunday after going without pay for the past 18 weeks.

McDermott said he came in Sunday to help train one of the few remaining staff members on how to care for the sanctuary's population of permanently disabled birds.

In recent weeks McDermott and Suto have been trying to find alternative  shelters for birds that require the kind of specialized care that is no longer available at the sanctuary.

But even with the deliberate downsizing a sizable population of pelicans and a few raptors remain.

"There are one hundred plus birds still onsite," said McDermott. 

He said ongoing food supplies are "not secure" and the hospital will cease to function without Suto.

"There are no hospital employees at the moment," McDermott said. "No one who's qualified."

McDermott said sanctuary worker Barb Boger also resigned over the weekend. 

Boger did not return calls for comment Sunday. No one answered the phone at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary. A recording encourages calls to leave a message.

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