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Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary; A safe place for a bird

(Page 3 of 3)

Hoisting the pelican into full view of the fascinated onlookers gathered outside the chain-link fence, Heath says, "I don't advise anyone else doing this sort of thing, because they could knock your eye out."

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Looking to the future, Heath sees several possible directions for his facility.

"We're really becoming a clearinghouse for environmental information," the director says. "One man wrote to me and asked what I knew about the American crocodile." He was able to put the writer in touch with an authority on the subject.

"And this is happening more and more all the time," he says. "A lot of students write asking about careers in working with wildlife."

He also hopes his sanctuary will soon be able to do more to educate the public about wildlife. He envisions a new sanctuary rising somewhere farther away from the coast with more room for education and research facilities, as well as for birds.

"This facility would remain as a satellite," Heath says, "but I want them [ the birds] inland where they're safer and we have the room to do the job right." More room, in this case, would be about 30 acres well enough away from the coast to protect the birds from hurricanes and tropical storms.

Storms coming in off the Gulf of Mexico are an important concern for the sanctuary, as it is for the entire beachfront community. Although the sanctuary has never had hurricane trouble, there might not be time to move all of the birds to safety in the case of a major blow, Heath feels.

Though he would like to make the move as soon as possible, he realizes that it could take several years to build the new sanctuary according to his standards. And he still hasn't found the right piece of land yet.

He hopes to relocate near the center of Pinellas County, a place where the sanctuary could "better serve the whole Tampa Bay area." But wherever the sanctuary goes, keeping a well-trained staff and proper support facilities are his main concerns.

But while Heath has visions for the future, wildlife rehabilitation in many forms continue to grow around the country.

Cliff Kevill, a wildlife care supervisor at the Chattahoochee Nature Center near Atlanta, Ga., estimates there are probably about 200 animal rehabilitation facilities around the country. Most of them, he says, are concentrated in the Northeast and California.

"The thing about the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary is that they keep some animals permanently," Mr. Kevill says. "We [do so] only if they serve some significant educational purpose."

Mr. Kevill, who plans to visit the seabird sanctuary soon, says it is this educational emphasis that distinguishes the Georgia facility from Heath's. The Chattahoochee center takes in injured and orphaned animals native to the Chattahoochee River basin, most of which are mammals.

Kevill and Heath both say its hard to gauge the proportions of such animal rehabilitation in the United States, because so much work is done by individuals in small backyard operations.

"There are so many small ones," says Heath, who recalls hearing of some that work without the necessary permits.

Turning toward a pen where several brown pelicans are busily building nests from clippings dumped in by a young volunteer, Heath says, "You're looking at an endangered species." The pelicans seem unperturbed by the crowd of onlookers as the birds build nests just inches away from the path. Some are even building nests pressed agains the fence on the forward side of the pen.

"Being part of saving an endangered species is a reward that very few people can experience," he says.

Suddenly, the air fills with the flurry of wings as a low- flying pelican, coming in for a landing at a shallow angle, touches down deftly on the edge of one of the open pens. Feeding time is approaching, and another freeloader has come in to see what's for lunch.

It's an afternoon at the sanctuary, like so many others. The camera-draped tourists mill along the paths between the cages, and Heath and his co-workers begin hauling out the fish.