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For the birds.

For the Birds

Florida is officially known as the Everglade State. Its 280 or more days of sunshine each year, however, give it 280 or more reasons for competing with New Mexico and South Dakota for the nickname of Sunshine State. Poll the annual influx of visitors who "come on down" when cold winds rattle the windows up north, and you'll find their No. 1 inspiration is sunshine, beautiful sunshine.

But after the beaches have yielded their souvenir shells, mouth and lungs have proved the saltiness of the sea, and that old devil sun has transformed skin to scarlet red, it is time to call the experience a vacation?

Not by a long shot.

Added to the Florida souvenirs should be "I'm for the Birds" T-shirts for all the family; at least a reprint, poster, or postcards from a collection of Salvador Dali masterpieces, and don't forget photos, movies, and memories of wild animals in their natural habitat--without having to make a side trip to Africa. Indeed, you can add them all without leaving the Tampa area.

Before taking your exciting safari into "The Dark Continent" at Busch Gardens, however, with the lighter side of its memorable theme park, there are two stops you should make on the way. Nor will the kids protest too vociferously when you brake the old Chevy for stop number one.

Ralph T. Heath, Jr., says he founded the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary at Indian Shores for the benefit of all seabirds not covered by Medicare or Medicaid. The birds' only requirement for admission to this field hospital for wildlife is a broken wing, a shattered leg, loss of sight, or being born out of wedlock, so to speak.

A half-hour before our arrival, one of the 14 employees (all wearing "I'm for the Birds" T-shirts) had netted a brown pelican with a lengthy slit in its pouch. No longer able to scoop up fish, the bird would have starved had it not been retrieved and fish chucked directly into its gullet. The patient was scheduled to have its wound stitched by a volunteer veterinarian. "Without leaving a seam," Heath says. As many as 5,500 sick and injured birds have been treated since he, a 26-year-old zoologist, founded this sanctuary in 1971.

Broken wings appear to be the most common complaint. Here's a baby bald eagle that broke his wing from fooling around in the nest and falling out. The night heron over there has a compound fracture. The red-tailed hawk with its wing in a splint doesn't appear to be at all grateful for the free treatment as it convalesces (about one month). Yet it's still better off than the sandhill crane that wheels past us missing one wing altogether.

Disease from water polluted by human waste combined with the "sport" of fishermen contribute to keeping the hospital full and the volunteer vets busy. Heath crumples a sheet of paper and tosses it to a cripple-winged pelican with only one eye. He catches it in his beak and tosses it back. As the game continues, Heath explains that a fisherman snagged Pelican Pat with a hook, ripped out his eye and smashed his wing. Nine such victims of fisherman sport have been admitted in a single day. Oil spills also take their toll, as the devoted women working in the "intensive care" ward can attest.

Though much of the work is voluntary, paying the yearly fish bill of $15,000 and other expenses depends upon the tax-deductible contributions of concerned citizens. Checks come in daily from as far away as New York and Texas. Memberships in Adop-a-Bird programs also help to keep the sanctuary out of the red. Various clubs around the country raise funds for the cause. And though visitors are admitted free, few can leave without showing appreciation for the labor of love done here by dropping a donation into one of the barrels positioned on the narrow, beachfront premises.

The T-shirts also are for sale. The reason we bought one had nothing to do with the first bird rescued here (a cormorant with a broken wing) being named Maynard.

The Salvador Dali Museum in nearby St. Petersburg is not free. A $3 charge (for students and senior citizens), however, will entitle one to view the largest collection of the Spanish artist's works in the world. Insured by Lloyds of London, it is valued conservatively at $35 million. After a lecture tour covering many of the 93 oil paintings, 200 watercolors and drawings, and 1,000 graphics, sculptures and objets d'art, one comes away with new, or renewed, respect for the late impressionist artist with the outrageous mustache ("my antenna to the world," as he preferred to call it).

Though a Dali original may be beyond your price range--Christies in London sold "Le Sommeil" (sleep) for $870,000--poster reprints are available in the lobby for as little as $10. Postcards of his works sell for only 40[. Why the museum is located in St. Petersburg and how A. Reynolds and Eleanor R. Morse made it possible is a story you'll take with you as you move on to Tampa and the 300 acres of fun and excitement surrounding the gigantic Busch brewery.
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Title Annotation:Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary and Salvador Dali Museum in Florida; includes related article on Busch Gardens
Author:Stoddard, Mayne Good
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Mar 1, 1991
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