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Sea Birds Find Friends at a Gulf Coast Hospital

June 22, 1986|SUSAN BAYER WARD | Ward is an Evanston, Ill., free-lance writer.

INDIAN SHORES, Fla. — This place is strictly for the birds and they know it.

Miracles happen in the darndest places.

Take this dusty, sun-blistered little no-name acre of land north of St. Petersburg. Its only visual relief is the Gulf of Mexico that licks at its doorstep.

Yet on this petite parcel of terra firma, lives are saved daily, the battered and bruised given succor and an entire species single-handedly wrested from the brink of extinction.

In the process, much of the Florida west coast has become bathed in the residual fame and glory from the efforts of a doughty little outfit called Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary.

The Bird Baron

The man to talk to about the sanctuary's purpose, aspirations, history and future is a round-faced, curly-mopped, bandito -mustachioed dynamo named Ralph Heath. At 39 he has become a legend in his hometown of Indian Shores and in many points north, south, east and west. Even a Norwegian TV crew trekked down from the frozen tundra to film the "baron of birddom."

"Our purpose is to rescue, repair, recuperate and, hopefully, release the rehabilitated wild birds native to our area," Heath said, leading a visitor down the catwalks jammed between about 30 open-air pens that seem to house every species of bird Audubon ever painted.

But I must admit to being initially depressed by the whole place. The birds looked extraordinarily healthy, and a cacophony of busy bird sounds pleasantly tickled at my eardrums, but the sanctuary seemed crowded. And it is unsuitably situated off busy Gulf Boulevard.

Then a cheeky pelican, stepping out for a breath of air, reached up and slyly unsnapped the back of a visitor's bathing suit top and I fell down laughing. I felt better.

The site for the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary just sort of happened.

In December, 1971, Heath, fresh from pre-med studies at Tampa's University of South Florida, was driving toward St. Petersburg. "I was out doing some Christmas shopping when I saw this little cormorant dragging a badly broken wing along Gulf Boulevard."

Heath defied traffic, scooped up the disabled creature and hurried home to his parents' house on the beach in Redington Shores. His father and mother were not surprised at this Boy Scout deed; their son had been hauling home pets--wounded or no--since age 4.

His father, a retired Tampa surgeon, had taught Ralph a lot about the care of wild things. As a budding naturalist, young Ralph had adopted 350 turtles, 40 alligators and one five-foot caiman that was finally evicted by Mrs. Heath when she met the critter in the hall.

Other Animals

Ralph, by his father's side, had operated on goldfish (one had a tumor), a snake that had swallowed a wooden egg, dog- and cat-mangled squirrels and a mammalian and avian cast of hundreds. "Pretty soon I got so good at it that only rarely would I have to call for his assistance. . . . I'd sew 'em right up."

So it seems that fate sealed an uncertain Ralph Heath's future in the form of that crippled cormorant. In the days following Maynard the Cormorant's arrival, wounded birds were thrust on Ralph Heath, who quickly became the unofficial St. Francis of Assisi of Redington Shores.

Friends, relatives, neighbors and total strangers blithely trucked in such wildfowl as a blue heron sickened by polluted water, a duck caught in an oil spill, a bald eagle that had smashed into a power line and many more.

And just like in the movies, a plain cardboard box was left on the Heath's doorstep one morning. The note said: "Bird inside; please help!" A bedraggled mourning dove with a lacerated wing lay huddled below the folded flaps.

From then on Ralph's bird haven grew. In no time at all, 400 wounded birds lay in various stages of recuperation in makeshift boxes, crates and cages all over the Heaths' yard.

In 1972 Heath created his present nonprofit organization so that donations could be accepted to keep the bird infirmary going (the sanctuary accepts no government funding).

Then in 1974 a major disaster loomed. A motel owner in Redington Shores complained about the "noisy birds" and city fathers sent Ralph Heath an eviction notice: The birds would have to go in 30 days.

After weeks of despair, Heath had a flash of remembrance while moping on the beach. He heard a neighbor's voice ringing in his ears: "You folks own the last house in town."

Heath dashed inside, dug up his family's property deed, and joyously discovered that most of their land lies in next-door Indian Shores. All Ralph had to do was edge a few cages north over the city line. But would Indian Shores be glad to inherit Heath and his bird buddies? He was welcomed with open arms.

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