BACKER DENIES WRONGDOING. SAYS CRITICISM IS THE RESULT OF "JEALOUSLY" BY OTHER WILDLIFE AGENCIES. AND HE IS CREDITED WITH KEEPING THE
KEY WEST FACILITY SOLVENT
A three-year-old report on how the backers of the Wildlife Rescue sanctuary here raise and spend tax-free money say it may not be "just for the birds."
However, the founder of the Florida west-coast corporation that operates the local agency, buffeted in recent years by accusations of nude-frolicking aboard hisagency's locally-based "research vessel," attributes the criticism to "jealousy" by other wildlife rehabilitators.
Despite the criticism, Ralph T. Heath, the controversial corporate chief of Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary is upbeat and revealed Wednesday a change is in store for the private wild-bird rescue center here.
The current name Wildlife Rescue of the Florida Keys located at Sonny McCoy Indigenous Park on White Street, is slated to be changed to Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary of the Florida Keys.
"So many people didn't know who was raising the money for the Florida Keys facility," he said, thus, the name change.
Heath, Suncoast's founder, president and executive director, said it will be done to reflect the reality of the 1998 change of ownership. At that time, the four-year-old agency here was in dire financial straits. Richie Moretti, founder and director of the Turtle Hospital in Marathon, reportedly called Heath, asking for his help.
Since then, the local organization, no longer cash-strapped, raised over $1,000 last year to help defray the expense of a new hospital building. "We're still hoping for a 100-foot-long flight cage, said operator Debbie Brittin.
Suncoast pays the salaries of the two employees at the Key West-based facility, but, says Heath, "We have not been able to raise enough local money to offset the operating expenses, such as fish food, to feed all the birds there."
However, while the 56-year-old entrepreneur is roundly praised for his financial support by the employees of the local sanctuary, it was his Key West-based research vessel that caught the eyes, in 1997 and 1998, of St. Petersburg Times investigative reporters, along with Gulf Coast-based Channel 8.
A 65-foot, luxury charter yacht, valued at $500,000, but bought for $355,000 with tax-deducted Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary funds, began operating in Tampa and later, in Key West. Heath said it was bought for research, but supported mostly through chartering by fishermen, snorkelers and sightseers.
Named "Whisker," the yacht came complete with a full-time captain and first mate, central heat and air conditioning, three television sets with VCRs, several smaller boats as tenders and a four-person hot tub, possibly to offset the rigors of a hard day of ocean-going research.
There is reportedly no research laboratory on the vessel.
Jeanette Matheny, a former relief captain and chef aboard the Whisker, now works at the Key West sanctuary and has nothing but praise for the importance of the vessel's mission.
"People got a little mad after the news stories came out," she said. "But what they didn't realize was that while we did have open charters to the public, we also offered excursions to the scientific community at huge discounts and we did some bird releases."
Heath reported he made many research trips to the Bahamas, sometimes staying for up to a month, "researching the effects of plastic pollution on the ocean floor."
But a state wildlife ranger was interviewed by Channel 8 and reported that on three different occasions, he witnessed "naked parties" aboard the sanctuary's research vessel. He said if they were doing research, it was without their uniforms on. Or anything else, for that matter.
Heath maintains that no nude parties ever took place aboard the boat. In any case, the charter business apparently never became a money-maker for the sanctuary. The latest report of its records showed an income of $88,230, with expenses in excess of $1.2 million.
Another unclothed incident was reported however, which while not involving the yacht, apparently did involve another of Heath's diversifications, educational films. Channel 8 reported that an adult movie was filmed on sanctuary land.
One of Heath's relatives is on the payroll for driving Motor Home Productions. According to the TV station, the adult movie, "Castaways on Jungle Jane's Island," includes a thank-you in its credits to Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary.
Heath denies the reports and said Wednesday that despite the sanctuary's tax-free status, which reportedly raised $1.7 million in 1996, and its disputed extracurricular activites, the Internal Revenue Service has never accused him of mixing his income with the sanctuary's.
A large proportion of Suncoast's income comes from deceased wealthy donors. At least $6.8 million in cash and property reportedly was donated through this route during the 1990s.
In the latest copy of its newsletter, "FlyFree," under the heading "last wills and testaments," the public is invited to remember the sanctuary as a Florida not-for-profit corporation. "We have long been granted tax-exempt status by the IRS and any donation to our organization is tax deductible and will help to offset inheritance taxes you might otherwise be obligated to pay," the article advises.
Heath employee Matheny insists that it's all a misunderstanding. She pointed out Wednesday that what the public doesn't understand is that the man is independently wealthy. "He has his own money," she said.
Furthermore, she said the Key West facility does a lot of good rehabilitating injured seagulls, pelicans and cormorants.
"Over 1,000 birds are released by us every year. And as for Seacoast's involvement, all the money that comes in locally, stays right here," she said.
As for Heath, the son of a prominent surgeon founded the 1.5-acre sanctuary near St. Petersburg 31 years ago. In 1971, Heath, a self-described "beach bum" with a degree in zoology from the University of South Florida, found an injured cormorant and nursed it back to health.
From that modest beginning, he has parlayed the rehabilitation of wild sea birds into a comfortable living for himself and reportedly lives in a $300,000 beachfront home.
"What my media critics fail to mention is that my father bought an acre and a half of prime beachfront property in 1952, and leased it to the sanctuary for a grand total of $1 a year," he said.
Meanwhile, the west-coast facility, which he says rescues 7,000 birds a year, has been undergoing an upgrading. Heath had been lambasted for "losing his way" from his idealistic roots of caring for the wildlife to instead, directing most of his attention to other money-making ventures.
"He has done little in the past 10 years to expand the bird facilities at the Indian Shores site (located near St. Petersburg)," said a reporter, who tracked his funds through tax documents.
Not true, counters Heath. "We're expanding the hospital despite impossible permitting problems. We're also modifying the cages and the aviary by putting netting across the entire sanctuary. We spent a huge amount of money not to keep the recovering birds in, but to protect their food from the free-flying birds (outside the sanctuary)."
In spite of his best efforts, the critics abound. But he remains convinced it's all about jealousy. "People in the animal-rescue business are more jealous of the success of others than doctor's are and they're pretty bad," he said.
As for his competition, he said Wednesday that he has known Laura Quinn "for years and years." Quinn, who runs her own Tavernier sanctuary for injured birds in the Upper Keys, said she remembered meeting Heath once when he stopped there.
"I knew of him though, and have heard all the horror stories about him. But he is a master at raising money and I'm not. Maybe there is a little jealousy," she admitted.