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Battling for Birds After the BP Oil Spill (PHOTOS)

Posted: 03/23/2012 4:27 pm

The oil-slicked seabirds have flown off to bluer oceans, but the padded pool used to recuperate them remains, a thoughtful placeholder should they need to return.

De-gunking feathers is all in a day's work for Ralph Heath. Earlier this month, settlement terms were reached for 2010's Deepwater Horizon oil spill. As director of the country's largest wild bird hospital, the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary, Heath's facility was the primary caregiver of Northern Gannets, large, golden-domed seabirds, during the calamity. The sanctuary, located in Indian Shores, Florida, treated 100 gannets, of which 98 survived and were released. Eight of his employees were also sent to the scene of the action, the northern Gulf Coast, to nurse oily pelicans back to health.

The coated gannets required special treatment. Heath says, "gannets are subject to having problems with their feet, because they do not come to shore very often. They're a difficult bird to recuperate." To get them back in shape, the injured fowl repaired to the sanctuary.

Heath notes, "we had to be real careful and put soft materials along the pond so that it did not braise the bottom of their feet, because their feet can get infections and sores."

Each gannet needed its fluffy feathers to be hand-washed free of oil. The seabirds' digestive systems were also flushed out with feeding tubes, as swallowed oil can be fatal to birdlife. As Heath tells is, "the bird's first instinct is to preen the oil off using its bill. And when they do that, they swallow a portion of the oil, which can be very damaging to their digestive system."

Within six months, all of the surviving gannets were free-flying and oil-free.

While the gannets rested up, Heath said that BP paid for their facilities and each individual bird under his care.

Heath was lukewarm about the oil giant's recent announcement of the $7.8 billion settlement to those affected by the disaster. "From what I hear, there were a whole lot of people that haven't been fully compensated."

In the spill aftermath, Heath says, "they did a pretty good job as far as having the rehabilitators clean up. The problem is, many birds died offshore that couldn't be rescued. One afternoon, we had a call from a fisherman that was about 40 or 50 miles south of where the oil was born out of New Orleans. And he had come across about 300 pelicans out there all covered in oil, all dying. And the only thing we could do was report his location to the Coast Guard. But I know darn good well, no one went out there."

He added, "I'm one hundred percent certain that more birds died than anyone tallied."

Heath is no stranger to avian calamity. Touring the sanctuary, he points out a Great Blue Heron which had been left at the sanctuary's after-hours pen and raised from "the size of a teacup." She's now four feet in height. Heath speaks to the proud, lanky seabird in the affectionate tone one might use to pacify a toddler. "Hey, Blue Girl," he coos. The sanctuary sees 10,000 sick or injured birds annually.

On a recent evening, a huge heron approached Heath outside his home, located on the sanctuary's property. Heath put his arm around the bird, only to discover a large hole in its back, the flesh pulled out by fishhook. Heath says, "I had nothing, my staff wasn't here. I carried the bird up to my house, and spread him across my whole washer and dryer." Heath was direct with the bird. "I said, Bird, it's just me and you, you gotta lay still while I work on you. And that bird laid still." The heron lived to tell the tale.

Heath's love of wildlife developed at an early age. His father, a surgeon by trade, was often called upon by neighborhood kids to patch up injured animals. Heath says fondly of his father, "he could put you back together from the top of your head to the bottom of your toe."

Hurt creatures were kept in a box until Heath came home so his father could demonstrate how to stitch them up. One time, the two took a tumor off a goldfish. Another day, the duo operated on a snake that had swallowed a wooden egg. Both animals survived.

Since establishing the sanctuary in 1971, Heath, who is 65 years old and sports curly brown hair, has had his share of remarkable rescues. One time, a wealthy North Carolina woman chartered a jet just to deliver him a tern. As Heath tells it "two well-dressed, uniformed pilots came off the plane with a little box. And they said, 'our job is to fly this bird down to you, hand it to you and turn back.'" The bird's benefactor had done her homework - the pilots said she wanted Heath to treat the hurt seabird, "no ifs, ands, or buts!"

One tern was delivered by skydivers. Concerned for the injured creature, the divers, who hailed from Florida's eastern coast, jumped off their plane - tern in tow - and successfully landed near the sanctuary. Laughs Heath, "that bird had a heck of a ride!"

Perhaps the most remarkable story is that of the egret which survived a car collision, only to be imprisoned inside the offending vehicle and driven all the way to Boston, Massachusetts. Found by a Boston mechanic, it was brought to a rehab center unable to sustain the bird's appetite for fish. Over the phone Heath was told, "you're never going to believe this, but this bird got a free trip all the way up from Orlando to Boston."

Heath says, "we have no idea how it survived. It didn't have any food because it was trapped in some metal near the radiator."

Heath sought to give the resilient traveler a first-class return. When a wealthy attorney friend offered the use of his Learjet, Heath flew up and escorted the bird back in the lawyer's private plane. Says Heath, "we later released him. That's what you call a bird that has nine lives."

Nowadays, the sanctuary is just as busy as ever, with 600 to 800 birds consistently inhabiting its alfresco beachfront pens. There are over 30 staff members, and more than 100 volunteers. Six hundred pounds of fish are disbursed daily. Visitors can expect to spy 45 bird species, from lowly park pigeons to owls, herons, egrets and pelicans. The latter, a symbol of Gulf Coast beaches, is perhaps the sanctuary's most famous tenant. In 1975, the sanctuary had the honor of hatching the world's first captivity-born Eastern Brown Pelican. Says Heath, "the scientific community said that Brown Pelicans would never breed in captivity, but they forgot to ask the birds." He told one disbelieving scientist, "look, if you had this nice protected environment down here out in the sun, wouldn't you want to have sex?" Since 1975, over 1,000 pelicans have hatched onsite.

On a recent visit, the sanctuary teemed with birdlife. Pens were alive with birds of all stripes that squawked, preened and ogled. Overhead, tree branches were filled with nests and twittering fowl. Unfettered by cages, these birds just stuck around because they liked the neighborhood. Human walking paths were shared with wandering pelicans. Staff member sweatshirts read "I'm for the birds."

There's no admission fee to enter the sanctuary. Heath laughingly says it's "about the only tourist attraction that is free in Florida." Later, he becomes more philosophical. "I'm really quite proud of the price," he says, "because the birds belong to everyone."

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Ralph Heath, director of the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary in Indian Shores, Florida, and pelican friend.
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