For the birds: Ralph Heath’s long, strange flight path

In the 45 years he operated the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, Ralph Heath had been nipped by thousands of birds. Any traumatized wild animal will lash out, of course, and since Heath had performed emergency surgery on broken wings, legs and beaks, from tiny songbirds to gangly herons and pelicans, his hands and arms were tattooed with scars from decades of defensive, and often painful, beak bites. He paid them no mind.

He also ignored the toxic bite of a brown recluse spider, which led to his death Oct. 2.

It’s likely Heath was bitten at the Starkey Road warehouse where he’d lived in virtual exile since 2016, when he was forcibly removed from the world-famous Indian Shores avian hospital and park he’d founded, after a litany of accusations – and worse – about misappropriated funds, inadequate bookkeeping and shoddy animal husbandry. The attendant bad press led to a treacherous decline in donations, the nonprofit sanctuary’s lone source of income.

It was an ignominious end to a soaring success story.

“Ralph’s only weakness was that he was too trusting of people, and solely focused on the birds,” said his son Alex von Gontard, a member of the board of directors that forced him out. “He admitted that he wasn’t a strong businessman. He would always say, ‘The birds will always provide.’”

Ralph had grown up privileged in Tampa, the only child of surgeon Ralph T. Heath and his wife Helen. As befitting a doctor’s son, he never had to want for anything. “When he was ten, he got his captain’s license – so his father bought him a boat,” wrote Sarah Gerard in her book of essays Sunshine State. “When he was 14, he owned 18 cars. When Ralph entered high school, his father bought him a ’61 Corvette. When he graduated, his father offered to buy him a new one.” Which he promptly did.

Ralph Jr. was obsessed with animals, and collected turtles, which he kept in filtered pools in the family’s back yard. If he and his friends happened upon an injured squirrel, rabbit or bird, they’d bring it to Dr. Heath and watch him stitch it up. Then they’d nurse the animal back to health.

He studied pre-med zoology, taking seven years to finish his undergraduate degree at the University of South Florida. He married Linda, his high school sweetheart, and wondered lazily how he should occupy his future. He wasn’t entirely sure he wanted the responsibility of a veterinary practice.

The Heath family had a weekend getaway in Indian Shores, an acre and a half on the beach side of Gulf Boulevard. In the 1950s and ‘60s, Ralph loved to tell people, you could walk on the sand for miles without encountering another human being.

billdeyoungcom Ralph Heath Jennie Grimes
Early days: Ralph Heath and volunteer Jennie Grimes. Promotional photo.

In December, 1971, he was driving and spotted a cormorant – a sleek, black bird known for its underwater fishing prowess – limping along the side of the road with a shattered wing. He captured it and brought it to the beach house.

Since his father was unavailable, Heath called Pasadena veterinarian Richard Shinn, a family friend. Shinn set the wing, cleaned the wound and told the 25-year-old Heath the cormorant needed rest and rehabilitation before it could be safely released back into the wild.

“I’ve done my job,” he told Ralph Heath. “Now it’s up to you.”

Heath, who could spin a yarn, repeated that one – the lightbulb moment the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary was conceived – many times over the decades. Charismatic and 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 Long Pier. Next, someone called about a pelican ensnared in fishing line and hooks.

He took them all in.

“He was full of piss and vinegar, whatever you want to call it,” said Shinn, now 93, retired and living in North Carolina. “He was really wrapped up into it – and, of course, the average person wouldn’t do that. But he was just a big pushover for injured birds.”

Word spread about Ralph Heath, the patron saint of birds in trouble, and within two years of establishing the sanctuary on his parents’ property, he was famous. Profiled regularly in the St. Petersburg Times and Evening Independent, he was also featured in Smithsonian Magazine and the New York Times. Charles Kuralt interviewed Ralph for On the Road. Even Captain Kangaroo sent a film crew.

The narrative was always pretty much the same: Between 15 and 50 birds came to the sanctuary every day, thousands per year. They arrived from backyards in boxes and bags. When calls came in about large seabirds like pelicans or egrets, wrapped up in mangroves or dragging a wing on some dock or seawall, someone – usually Ralph – would go and fetch it.

Those that could not be released into the wild, following treatment by Heath or the vets he regularly consulted, lived out their natural lives in roomy pens built next to the house. He employed a small hospital staff, and local teenagers lined up for the honor of volunteering for him.

He was featured in a full-page ad that ran in Playboy magazine in 1975:

PROFILE: Tireless. Extremely dedicated, working eighteen hours a day without pay to repair the damage suffered by birds and their environment.

SCOTCH: Dewar’s “White Label.”

This was approximately the same time that Ralph, newly divorced, began dating actress Dawn (Gilligan’s Island) Wells, who lived in one of the giant condos up the beach.

Permanent-resident brown pelicans began breeding in their sanctuary pens, which had never before happened in captivity. When the chicks left their nests, the staff would “teach” them to catch fish in their plastic wading pools. Once the birds were fledged, the protective overhead netting was rolled back, and they were allowed to leave their pens. They always returned at sunset.

Eventually, the netting was made permanent, and the young pelicans were on their own. The Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary released 200 “new” brown pelicans into the wild this way, which might have contributed to the species’ removal from the Endangered Species List in 1985 (captive breeding was eventually made illegal by federal legislation).

At the height of its popularity, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary boasted 100,000 human visitors annually.

Until his death in 1986, Ralph’s father – dressed in khakis, a safari shirt and a pith helmet – roamed the sanctuary grounds, greeting visitors and leading tours. Back in the home/office, Helen Heath was her son’s bookkeeper.

“Ralph,” said Kevin Doty, Heath’s friend and attorney for the last 15 years of his life, “always deferred to his mother the business end of the sanctuary. Because Ralph’s attention was not paperwork. Ralph’s attention was birds.”

In 1982, Ralph married wildlife photojournalist Beatrice Busch, heiress to the Anheuser-Busch fortune, whose Missouri-based family wintered on Pass-a-Grille. In short order, the newly-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 mother.

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

Ralph continued to devote himself to his feathered friends. As Indian Shores became more developed, his 1.5 acre attraction – for a tourist attraction it had become – raised the ire of neighboring hotel and condominium owners, who saw it as an eyesore and a “waste” of valuable beachfront property. They complained about the smell, too.

“Ralph always believed, and I tended to believe, that the sanctuary was becoming a sore spot for elected officials,” said attorney Doty. “He believed there really was a vendetta against him.”

He was also beginning to make questionable choices. He purchased a waterfront home for himself, and allegedly spent more than $300,000 on a party yacht (he claimed it was being used as a research vessel). He was accused of letting a photographer take photos of scantily-clad young women, for a calendar, after hours on sanctuary property.

It was after the turn of the century that the squall of controversy became a hurricane. “When other businesses were laying off employees in the 2008 financial crisis and donations ground to a standstill, Ralph attempted to retain his full-time staff of over 25 employees,” related Alex von Gontard. “He even leveraged the sanctuary property to simply cover payroll; however, when that dried up too, he was levied with significant payroll tax fines and criticized in the media.”

Facing mounting debts and an IRS lien, Heath sold the deed to the property to Seaside Land Investments, the Dallas-based LLC owned by his estranged sons and their stepfather.

In 2013, three-quarters of the staff resigned on the same day, after one too many missed payrolls, and growing ever-weary of Heath’s increasingly eccentric behavior.

He often told the story about his friend Jim Billie, the Seminole chief, and how he was certain Ralph had an “aura,” or a sort of radar, that birds “picked up on.”

In Sarah Gerard’s Sunshine State, Heath says:

“You get a wild heron or egret just to walk up to you, stand there without moving, and let you pick it up and operate on it without any anesthesia. I’m talking about setting wings, setting legs, sewing them up. Now, because it’s just me and it’s usually late at night, so nobody else is around. The bird will lie absolutely still, just like that dish there. And looking at me.”

Helen Heath, who had handled her son’s books since day one, died in 2014 at the age of 104.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission inspected the sanctuary and Heath’s house. He was charged with 59 misdemeanors over the way Suncoast was caring for its non-releasable residents, and his permit to treat migratory birds was rescinded.

At a subsequent raid at the windowless, sanctuary-owned Starkey Road warehouse, investigators discovered dozens of sick and injured birds wandering unattended, the floors thick with feathers, rotting fruit and feces. Eight birds had to be euthanized. Dozens of turtles were discovered swimming in a filthy pool that smelled of chemicals. Heath was charged with possessing migratory birds with an expired license, trying to rehabilitate injured wildlife in an unapproved location and other violations.

He was also captured, on a clandestine phone video, taking coins from sanctuary donation boxes and stuffing them into his pockets.

Enough, the von Gontards said, was enough. According to Alex, “as the media frenzy continued and donations continued to wane, we decided that it was in the best interest of the sanctuary to continue the mission without Ralph.”

He was allowed to reside at the warehouse, provided he stayed away from the beach property, which was immediately re-branded the Seaside Seabird Sanctuary. Rehabbing the rehab center and its tattered reputation had commenced.

Although they don’t reside in Florida, the brothers remain on the board of directors today, and say they are actively involved in Seaside’s operation.

Like a crippled bird in a pen, Ralph Heath lived out his days in this warehouse at 12238 Starkey Road in Largo. Photo: Bill DeYoung.

Ralph’s buddy Zach Platt used to drop by the warehouse on the way to visit his girlfriend in Dunedin. They’d stand outside the front door and shoot the breeze. “I was in there one time,” Platt said, “and the stench was so bad I couldn’t stand it.”

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

According to Platt, Kevin Doty and a second lawyer Ralph hired “were just floored about how naive Ralph was about a lot of things. They couldn’t figure out how Ralph got so far being the way he was. But he did.”

His friends have pieced together Heath’s final days: He ignored the spider bite until it became infected and he began feeling poorly. After a stay in the hospital, he checked in, on doctor’s orders, to Tierra Pines Rehab Center.

During his exercise regiment on the afternoon of Oct. 2, he complained of feeling dizzy, and collapsed, likely from a cardiac event. He subsequently died at Largo Medical Center. He was 76.

A memorial service 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 install a plaque at Seaside Seabird Sanctuary, to honor their estranged father’s legacy.

“Although sometimes misunderstood, we would like Ralph to please be remembered as a champion for nature and the environment and for his life of service to the birds,” said Alex. “He had a love for all creatures great and small, and a commitment to a cause that present and future generations can be proud of as we continue on a path to a more environmentally friendly and sustainable world.

“As Ralph said, ‘Everyone always gravitates to the cute and cuddly mammals; but, if you can take the time to win over the heart of a bird – well then, you really have something special.’”