Ralph Heath’s long, strange flight path • St Pete Catalyst

Ralph Heath’s long, strange flight path • St Pete Catalyst

In the 45 many years he operated the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, Ralph Heath experienced been nipped by 1000’s of birds. Any traumatized wild animal will lash out, of study course, and because Heath had carried out unexpected emergency surgical treatment on damaged wings, legs and beaks, from small songbirds to gangly herons and pelicans, his palms and arms had been tattooed with scars from a long time of defensive bites. He paid out them no head.

He also dismissed the toxic chunk of a brown recluse spider, which led to his demise Oct. 2.

It is probably Heath was bitten at the Starkey Highway warehouse exactly where he’d lived in virtual exile given that 2016, when he was forcibly removed from the environment-popular Indian Shores avian medical center and park he’d started, right after a litany of accusations – and worse – about misappropriated money, insufficient bookkeeping and shoddy animal husbandry. The attendant undesirable press led to a treacherous decrease in donations, the nonprofit sanctuary’s lone source of cash flow.

It was an ignominious stop to a soaring achievement story.

“Ralph’s only weak point was that he was as well trusting of persons, and entirely targeted on the birds,” stated his son Alex von Gontard, a member of the board of administrators that forced him out. “He admitted that he wasn’t a sturdy businessman. He would always say, ‘The birds will usually deliver.’”

Ralph had grown up privileged in Tampa, the only kid of surgeon Ralph T. Heath and his spouse Helen. As befitting a doctor’s son, he never ever experienced to want for something. “When he was 10, he got his captain’s license – so his father purchased him a boat,” wrote Sarah Gerard in her book of essays Sunshine Point out. “When he was 14, he owned 18 cars. When Ralph entered substantial college, his father purchased him a ’61 Corvette. When he graduated, his father made available to acquire him a new 1.” Which he instantly did.

Ralph Jr. was obsessed with animals, and collected turtles, which he saved in filtered swimming pools in the family’s again property. If he and his close friends transpired upon an hurt squirrel, rabbit or hen, they’d provide it to Dr. Heath and watch him sew it up. Then they’d nurse the animal back again to health.

Ralph Heath’s long, strange flight path • St Pete Catalyst

Early times: Ralph and Linda.

He studied pre-med zoology, using seven yrs to complete his undergraduate diploma at the University of South Florida. He married Linda, his substantial faculty sweetheart, and wondered lazily how he need to occupy his foreseeable future. He wasn’t entirely absolutely sure he needed the duty of a veterinary apply.

The Heath relatives experienced a weekend getaway in Indian Shores, an acre and a 50 {2b63ca780747fd71e5e7e1abc600b24462415ced4ae6b883c2cb36d8675d08de} on the beach front aspect of Gulf Boulevard. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Ralph cherished to explain to individuals, you could walk on the sand for miles without encountering a further human getting.

In December, 1971, he was driving and spotted a cormorant – a smooth, black chicken recognized for its underwater fishing prowess – limping together the facet of the highway with a shattered wing. He captured it and brought it to the beach front dwelling.

Because his father was unavailable, Heath termed Pasadena veterinarian Richard Shinn, a family members mate. Shinn established the wing, cleaned the wound and instructed the 25-12 months-old Heath the cormorant necessary rest and rehabilitation before it could be safely introduced back again into the wild.

“I’ve accomplished my task,” he explained to Ralph Heath. “Now it is up to you.”

Heath, who could spin a yarn, repeated that a person – the lightbulb second the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary was conceived – a lot of times around the many years. Charismatic and self-confident, he was no stranger to the art of self-promotion.

The cormorant – Ralph named him Maynard – was followed by a busted-up seagull from the Redington Extensive Pier. Future, an individual known as about a pelican ensnared in fishing line and hooks.

He took them all in.

“He was total of piss and vinegar, regardless of what you want to contact it,” said Shinn, now 93, retired and residing in North Carolina. “He was actually wrapped up into it – and, of class, the typical individual would not do that. But he was just a large pushover for injured birds.”

Picture: Florida Archives.

Term unfold about Ralph Heath, the patron saint of birds in issues, and in just two yrs of establishing the sanctuary on his parents’ house, he was renowned. Profiled frequently in the St. Petersburg Moments and Evening Independent, he was also highlighted in Smithsonian Magazine and the New York Moments. Charles Kuralt interviewed Ralph for On the Highway. Even Captain Kangaroo sent a movie crew.

The narrative was usually very considerably the exact same: Involving 15 and 50 birds came to the sanctuary each day, thousands per year. They arrived from backyards in packing containers and luggage. When phone calls came in about significant seabirds like pelicans or egrets, wrapped up in mangroves or dragging a wing on some dock or seawall, anyone – generally Ralph – would go and fetch it.

These that could not be launched into the wild, next treatment by Heath or the vets he frequently consulted, lived out their natural life in roomy pens built next to the residence. He used a smaller healthcare facility staff, and area youngsters lined up for the honor of volunteering for him.

He was highlighted in a complete-website page ad that ran in Playboy journal in 1975:

PROFILE: Tireless. Really dedicated, performing eighteen several hours a day without spend to mend the damage endured by birds and their atmosphere.

SCOTCH: Dewar’s “White Label.”

This was somewhere around the similar time that Ralph, freshly divorced, started relationship actress Dawn (Gilligan’s Island) Wells, who lived in 1 of the giant condos up the beach front.

Permanent-resident brown pelicans began breeding in their sanctuary pens, which had in no way ahead of took place in captivity. When the chicks left their nests, the team would “teach” them to capture fish in their plastic wading pools. The moment the birds have been fledged, the protecting overhead netting was rolled again, and they were authorized to go away their pens. They always returned at sunset.

Ultimately, the netting was designed long term, and the young pelicans have been on their personal. The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary produced 200 “new” brown pelicans into the wild this way, which may have contributed to the species’ removal from the Endangered Species Checklist in 1985 (captive breeding was finally built illegal by federal laws).

At the peak of its reputation, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary boasted 100,000 website visitors on a yearly basis.

Until eventually his death in 1986, Ralph’s father – dressed in khakis, a safari shirt and a pith helmet – roamed the sanctuary grounds, greeting guests and main tours. Again in the home/workplace, Helen Heath was her son’s bookkeeper.

“Ralph,” mentioned Kevin Doty, Heath’s pal and attorney for the past 15 years of his daily life, “always deferred to his mom the business conclude of the sanctuary. For the reason that Ralph’s awareness was not paperwork. Ralph’s consideration was birds.”

In 1982, Ralph married wildlife photojournalist Beatrice Busch, heiress to the Anheuser-Busch fortune, whose Missouri-based loved ones wintered on Pass-a-Grille. In limited buy, the recently-minted Mr. and Mrs. Heath had three sons – Andrew, and twins Alex and Peter – and when the couple divorced in 1988, the boys went with their mom.

In time, they took the surname of their new stepfather, Adalbert von Gontard III.

Ralph continued to commit himself to his feathered mates. As Indian Shores grew to become more created, his 1.5 acre attraction – for a vacationer attraction it had become – elevated the ire of neighboring lodge and condominium proprietors, who noticed it as an eyesore and a “waste” of valuable beachfront residence. They complained about the scent, also.

“Ralph constantly believed, and I tended to think, that the sanctuary was becoming a sore place for elected officers,” claimed attorney Doty. “He believed there really was a vendetta against him.”

He was also starting to make questionable selections. He acquired a waterfront property for himself, and allegedly invested additional than $300,000 on a social gathering yacht (he claimed it was staying applied as a study vessel). He was accused of allowing a photographer take photos of scantily-clad younger gals, for a calendar, right after several hours on sanctuary residence.

It was soon after the switch of the century that the squall of controversy grew to become a hurricane. “When other organizations ended up laying off workforce in the 2008 economic crisis and donations ground to a standstill, Ralph attempted to retain his full-time personnel of over 25 workers,” connected Alex von Gontard. “He even leveraged the sanctuary residence to just deal with payroll on the other hand, when that dried up also, he was levied with sizeable payroll tax fines and criticized in the media.”

Going through mounting debts and an IRS lien, Heath sold the deed to the assets to Seaside Land Investments, the Dallas-centered LLC owned by his estranged sons and their stepfather.

In 2013, a few-quarters of the personnel resigned on the exact day, soon after one particular too quite a few missed payrolls, and growing at any time-weary of Heath’s progressively eccentric behavior.

He normally explained to the tale about his pal Jim Billie, the Seminole main, and how he was specified Ralph experienced an “aura,” or a sort of radar, that birds “picked up on.”

In Sarah Gerard’s Sunshine State, Heath states:

“You get a wild heron or egret just to walk up to you, stand there without having shifting, and enable you decide on it up and function on it devoid of any anesthesia. I’m speaking about placing wings, placing legs, sewing them up. Now, simply because it’s just me and it’s normally late at evening, so no person else is close to. The hen will lie totally however, just like that dish there. And on the lookout at me.”

Helen Heath, who experienced managed her son’s guides considering the fact that working day a person, died in 2014 at the age of 104.


The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Fee inspected the sanctuary and Heath’s residence. He was billed with 59 misdemeanors over the way Suncoast was caring for its non-releasable inhabitants, and his allow to deal with migratory birds was rescinded.

At a subsequent raid at the windowless, sanctuary-owned Starkey Street warehouse, investigators found dozens of sick and wounded birds wandering unattended, the flooring thick with feathers, rotting fruit and feces. 8 birds had to be euthanized. Dozens of turtles ended up uncovered swimming in a filthy pool that smelled of chemicals. Heath was billed with possessing migratory birds with an expired license, making an attempt to rehabilitate hurt wildlife in an unapproved site and other violations.

He was also captured, on a clandestine cellphone movie, getting cash from sanctuary donation boxes and stuffing them into his pockets.

More than enough, the von Gontards mentioned, was more than enough. In accordance to Alex, “as the media frenzy continued and donations continued to wane, we made a decision that it was in the greatest desire of the sanctuary to keep on the mission without Ralph.”

He was allowed to reside at the warehouse, supplied he stayed away from the seashore house, which was right away re-branded the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary. Rehabbing the rehab center and its tattered name had commenced.

Whilst they never reside in Florida, the brothers remain on the board of directors nowadays, and say they are actively included in Seaside’s operation. 

Ralph Heath lived in this warehouse at 12238 Starkey Street in Largo. Photo: Bill DeYoung.

Ralph’s buddy Zach Platt made use of to fall by the warehouse on the way to check out his girlfriend in Dunedin. They’d stand outside the entrance door and shoot the breeze. “I was in there one particular time,” Platt mentioned, “and the stench was so undesirable I could not stand it.”

How did Ralph stand it? “He just acted as although it didn’t exist.”

In accordance to Platt, Kevin Doty and a second law firm Ralph employed “were just floored about how naive Ralph was about a great deal of items. They couldn’t figure out how Ralph got so much becoming the way he was. But he did.”

His friends have pieced jointly Heath’s remaining days: He dismissed the spider bite right up until it turned contaminated and he began feeling poorly. Just after a continue to be in the clinic, he checked in, on doctor’s orders, to Tierra Pines Rehab Centre.

All through his exercising regiment on the afternoon of Oct. 2, he complained of experience dizzy, and collapsed, probable from a cardiac event. He subsequently died at Largo Healthcare Heart. He was 76.

A memorial provider is scheduled for 11 a.m.-1 p.m. Friday, Oct. 22 at Anderson-McQueen Tyrone Chapel, 7820 38th Avenue N.

The von Gontard brothers intend to put in a plaque at Seaside Seabird Sanctuary, to honor their estranged father’s legacy.

“Although at times misunderstood, we would like Ralph to please be remembered as a champion for character and the setting and for his lifetime of provider to the birds,” claimed Alex. “He experienced a appreciate for all creatures wonderful and small, and a commitment to a cause that present and future generations can be happy of as we keep on on a path to a a lot more environmentally pleasant and sustainable environment.

“As Ralph said, ‘Everyone usually gravitates to the lovable and cuddly mammals but, if you can get the time to win in excess of the coronary heart of a fowl – nicely then, you actually have a little something particular.’”

Photo: Florida Archives.