Photos show ‘deplorable’ conditions for wildlife held captive by Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary founder

Image courtesy FWC

LARGO, FL (WFLA) – World-renowned wildlife rescuer Ralph Heath has a lot of explaining to do for what’s behind the steel doors of a windowless warehouse in Largo. That’s where FWC officers cited the founder of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary with five criminal offenses for keeping a personal collection of wildlife locked up in “deplorable” conditions.

A Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission investigation sparked by a complaint of “abusive” and “disgusting” conditions has uncovered horrific conditions for captive wildlife inside Heath’s dark 35,000 square foot warehouse at 12388 Starkey Rd.  A just-released criminal report details charges filed against Heath, a trained zoologist who has garnered worldwide fame since founding the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary on Indian Shores 45 years ago. Heath is on probation for animal abuse and neglect stemming from the FWC’s last raid on his warehouse in 2014.

According to a state report obtained by 8 On Your Side, The FWC seized of dozens of protected turtles from Heath’s locked warehouse in Largo—a shadowy and secure steel and concrete building that bears more resemblance to a supermax prison than a wildlife sanctuary.

Along with Heath’s illegal pet turtles, FWC officers discovered a number of domestic and exotic birds and ducks living in unsanitary conditions including a federally protected laughing gull with an amputated leg. Officers reported that drinking water inside the sealed warehouse “was opaque with mud and silt.” The air was so putrid with the smell of ammonia and animal feces that one officer donned a surgical mask before entering the warehouse to investigate allegations of abuse and neglect.

Photos taken inside the warehouse by the FWC last week show Heath’s captive collection of turtles, gulls, ducks, chickens, cockatoos and cockatiels locked in dim rooms with walls coated in mold and animal waste blanketing the floors.

“I actually convert to mouth breathing but I still taste it and I’ll taste it for the rest of the day,” Lt. Steve Delacure said after exiting the warehouse.

In his criminal report FWC Officer Robert O’Horo described a horror show of foul smelling feces on the second floor of the warehouse in an area so dark he needed a flashlight to find his way during his initial investigation May 10.  Heath’s menagerie of mutant turtles and wild birds roamed the interior floors of the tomb-like structure as O‘Horo followed Heath through a shadowy labyrinth of stairwells and interior rooms.

”He lead me to a windowless room which was once a urinal facility for the warehouse,” O’Horo wrote. “The floor was covered in wood shavings, feathers and feces. A cloud of rancid smelling particulate hung in the air. The walls were covered in mold. As I entered the room, my boots sank into the wet spongy mix of substrate, feces, spoiled food and feathers. I observed roaches running over my boots on several occasions and my boots were caked with fecal material after my visit.”

O’Horo documented dozens of turtles that require state permits to possess. He also noted an injured and federally-protected laughing gull with the stub of an amputated leg wrapped in duct tape.

“He stated that it had been dropped off in front of the warehouse several days before,” O’Horo wrote. “Based on the condition of the tape, I suspected the bird may have been there longer. Mr. Heath indicated that the gull was now his pet and that it came to Florida as a stowaway on a ship.” The gull and the turtles are illegal to possess without state or federal permits and when asked Heath had none to show the officer.

READ THE FULL REPORT from FWC here 

The FWC officer also described numerous bird coops containing captive pigeons and doves inside the warehouse. There were even more animals and birds, including chickens, kept in smaller buildings outside of the warehouse. Some of the animals had deformities or appeared injured. None had clean drinking water.

O’Horo noted that during his initial visit May 10 Heath promised to address the unsanitary conditions. “Mr. Heath acknowledged that the conditions were bad and that he would start the process of cleaning up. I told him I would be back the following week to inspect the warehouse again.”

The FWC officer returned six days later. By that time, Heath had transported the gull with the amputated leg back to the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary he runs on Indian Shores.

“But conditions in the warehouse were identical as my last visit, or worse than observed the previous week,” O’Horo wrote.

On his second visit, the officer also discovered another room that housed numerous exotic birds such as  parakeets and cockatiels. “This room was covered in feathers and fecal material and the birds did not have clean water,” O’Horo noted.

O’Horo issued five misdemeanor citations to Heath for:

  • Possession of migratory birds without a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Permit.
  • Wildlife not maintained in humane/sanitary conditions.
  • Rehabilitation of wildlife in unapproved location.
  • Lack of intake records or daily logs for any of the animals at location (including gulls and ducks).
  • Possession of Florida box turtles.

The FWC officer took numerous photos to document the rancid habitats inside Heath’s warehouse and the poor condition of the animals he encountered. O’Horo also seized 33 Florida box turtles and nine red-eared slider turtles which require state permits to possess. The FWC turned over the turtles to Vernon Yates of Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation for safekeeping. “All other wildlife found in the room on the second floor of the warehouse was relocated to more suitable areas on the property,” O’Horo wrote. Yates tells 8 On Your Side he is working with Heath to move all of the animals and birds outside “where they can see sunlight.”

The FWC is still consulting with Yates to determine whether more animals which are not directly protected by FWC regulations should be removed from the property. Lt. Steve Delacure says the FWC also plans to ask a Pinellas County judge to suspend or revoke Heath’s state wildlife rehabilitation license which Heath needs to operate the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary on Indian Shores. Heath’s federal wildlife rehabilitation license has expired and the FWC doubts he will be able to renew that permit.

Meanwhile, Heath will have to answer to a judge at the Pinellas Justice Center Thursday for violating his criminal probation stemming from charges of animal abuse and neglect two years ago in the same warehouse. As a condition of Heath’s probation order in 2014 he was ordered to obey state wildlife laws.

According to a violation of probation report filed with the Court, O’Horo reported “In one room, animals were being kept in deplorable conditions with dirty water and spoiled food. Fecal matter was everywhere.”

Heath’s probation officer violated Heath based on the FWC officer’s account. “The defendant has failed to abide by the Florida Wildlife Commission regulations,” wrote probation officer Erik Marsteller just hours after the FWC raided the warehouse.

Heath has declined any comment in response to questions posed by 8 On Your Side.

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