Turtles seized from Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder

PINELLAS COUNTY, FL (WFLA) – Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission officers spent hours Friday removing illegal and in some cases injured or sick turtles from unsanitary conditions at a windowless warehouse operated by Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary Founder Ralph Heath.

FWC Lt. Steve Delacure wore a mask and other protective gear for his personal protection because of the unhealthy conditions inside Heath’s warehouse at 12388 Starkey Road in Largo.

“It’s hard to describe unless you’ve been around it you can probably smell the stench on me right now,” said Delacure after exiting the warehouse. “You can see the fecal material on my pants.”

Delacure told 8 On Your Side 43 turtles were removed from Heath’s Largo warehouse where he keeps a private zoo of wild animals and handed over to a wildlife rehabber Vernon Yates for safekeeping. All of the turtles seized by the FWC are Florida Box turtles and Red Sliders which are protected species under Florida law. Heath did not have a permit for any of them.

Delacure says the FWC left behind an unspecified number of pigeons, gulls, ducks and chickens living in the same unsanitary conditions inside Heath’s warehouse. FWC officers plan to contact the SPCA to address the well-being of those domestic animals.

Late Monday the FWC officer investigating the case was still tallying the number of misdemeanor charges against Heath. The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder also faces a violation of probation charge following a similar bust that happened two years ago when the FWC filed nearly 60 charges against Heath for mistreatment and neglect. In that criminal case a number of animals had to be euthanized.

Monday, Heath ignored questions posed by 8 On Your Side at the warehouse and probation office. Monday morning Heath told an 8 On Your Side videographer who was at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary when an FWC officer arrived “No interviews, chief.”

Heath is no stranger to controversy.

About 20 years ago an 8 On Your Side investigation uncovered millions of dollars in charitable donations that Heath spent on a 70-foot pleasure yacht called Whisker equipped with a hot tub. Heath referred to the yacht with five luxury staterooms as his “research vessel.” A state parks officer on Egmont Key told 8 On Your Side he saw nude people partying aboard Whisker on several occasions. The ship has been decaying in a boatyard for years because the declining donations at the sanctuary made it impossible to keep it operational.

Another 8 On Your Side investigation revealed that Heath granted permission for a subscription website called Truteteenbabes.com to photograph nearly nude girls between the ages of 13 and 17 dressed in lingerie and striking provocative poses at the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, at the warehouse where Heath keeps his private collection of animals and even in the bathroom of the beach house that Heath shares with free flying birds next to the Sanctuary.

An 8 On Your Side investigation also detailed allegations by sanctuary workers who alleged that Heath pillaged the cash donations from the sanctuary for his personal use at a time when workers weren’t getting paid the minimum wage and in some cases not paid at all. Heath was also sanctioned by the state for failing to have workers compensation insurance. He was arrested in 2013 on the charge of workers’ compensation fraud.

It’s not clear how much trouble Heath has found himself in this time but after years of dogging him for various wildlife violations the FWC says it will ask a Pinellas County judge to suspend or revoke Heath’s wildlife license to operate the sanctuary which has become a landmark on Indian Shores since the 1970s.

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