The world-famous Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary no longer has a working hospital or anyone to staff it after a weekend employee exodus triggered by the nonprofit's financial problems and inability to care for sick and injured wild birds.
The sanctuary's hospital supervisor, Barbara Suto, handed in her resignation Sunday after spending more than 30 years building the wildlife rehabilitation center into a widely respected organization renowned for its care of pelicans, raptors and other wild birds native to Florida.
"It's very difficult," Suto said. "I've been caring for these birds a long time."
Suto's decision to quit boiled down to her own financial survival: She said she hasn't received a paycheck in 16 weeks.
"I can't continue to support myself," she said.
Barbara Boger, who had faithfully cleaned out the pelican pools at 6 a.m. every day for the past four years, quit on Saturday for the same reason. She said she hadn't been paid in 18 weeks.
"It broke my heart," she said. "I've been taking care of these pelicans for the last four years, basically. So I gave them a big hug goodbye and said goodbye."
In recent months, Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary's financial problems under the leadership of founder Ralph Heath have reached a crisis level and prompted the departure of most of the staff.
The Internal Revenue Service filed liens against the sanctuary amounting to about $188,000 for unpaid payroll taxes. The U.S. Dept. of Labor has ordered the sanctuary to pay more than $21,000 in back wages to workers, and the Florida Department of Revenue recently filed a lien for several thousand dollars for unpaid unemployment tax.
A private creditor also filed a foreclosure lawsuit based on an unpaid loan of $550,000 taken out by Heath several years ago.
In January, Heath announced the sanctuary could no longer afford to rescue injured birds and said he was transitioning to a volunteer-based staff due to his charity's inability to keep up with debts.
But Suto's departure now means there is no one left at the sanctuary to carry on the core function of providing medical care for sick and injured birds, the sanctuary's mainstay for decades.
"You've got to be able to do it the right way, 100 percent, and with the financial difficulties of the sanctuary, it can't be done anymore," she said.
Matthew McDermott, who provided day-to-day care and feeding for hundreds of birds at the sanctuary, also resigned Sunday after going without pay for the past 18 weeks.
McDermott went in Sunday to help train one of the few remaining staff members how to care for the sanctuary's population of permanently disabled birds.
In recent weeks, McDermott and Suto have been trying to find alternative shelters for birds that require the kind of specialized care that is no longer available at the sanctuary.
Even with the deliberate downsizing, a sizable population of pelicans and a few raptors remain.
"There are one hundred plus birds still on-site," McDermott said.
Ongoing food supplies are "not secure," and the hospital will cease to function without Suto, McDermott said.
"There are no hospital employees at the moment," McDermott said. "No one who's qualified."
Although the bird hospital is closed and the sanctuary isn't taking in any rescued or injured birds, the sanctuary remains open and will continue caring for the birds that are there, said longtime manager Micki Eslick.
"We're going to try to get ourselves in order and continue moving forward," she said.
Eslick said she would like to pay all the employees who haven't been getting checks.
"It would do my heart great because I feel bad for them," she said. "I really do."
Meanwhile, Robin Vergera, a former fundraiser and volunteer coordinator for the sanctuary, said he and Suto are founding a new organization called the Suncoast Bird Rescue.
Vergera has been sharply critical of Heath and his business practices and has vowed to create a replacement charity.
He is talking with The City of Largo to create a wildlife rehabilitation center at McGough Park.
Meanwhile, Boger wonders what will become of the birds left at the sanctuary.
"Hopefully they will do a good job of taking care of what birds are left," she said. "That's what I pray for right now."