Here’s what Sarasota city staff didn’t find at Save Our Seabirds during an unannounced inspection June 20: rats or black mold.
The facility was clean, filled with visitors and free of rats and dead birds.
The rats, along with black mold, were there insisted former volunteers and a former employee during Monday’s Sarasota City Commission meeting. Commissioners were concerned enough about the allegations that they asked staff to investigate further.
The commission ordered the initial investigation after former SOS volunteer Greg Para presented a sworn affidavit during a June 19 joint meeting of the Sarasota City Commission and Sarasota County Commission that included multiple allegations, including that he had seen rats kill or maim birds on more than one occasion; that the birdcages and pumping systems for the aviary are not adequate and violate the city lease; that the facility does not have permits to care for parrots; and that on five separate occasions he found that parrots hadn’t received fresh food and water in 48 hours due to personnel shortages.
The allegations came a month-and-a-half after the termination of founder Lee Fox, whom the board insists rejected two offers to continue her employment out of her home-based Wimauma facility, opting, instead, to tell the media she was fired.
Para, a Fox supporter who organized a rally Saturday in support of Fox that drew at least 50 people, alleged that conditions violated the organization’s $10-a-year lease of the city-owned land. Fox did not attend the meeting or the rally.
At Monday night’s meeting, commissioners heard a glowing report from city staffers.
“The leasehold was in the best condition we had ever seen it,” Purchasing Manager Mary Tucker reported to the City Commission Monday night.
Additionally, SOS CEO David Pilston described the organization’s accomplishments over the past year, which included becoming more responsive to bird calls, creating an online database of birds treated that wasn’t in place before but is required by wildlife permits and extensive renovations to the facility.
But former SOS employee Cally Lajeunesse said she resigned from the organization because she couldn’t stand seeing what she described as “the mistreatment of birds.”
She told the commission of black mold covering the ceiling and alleged that rats would steal food from birds, making it impossible to know how much the birds had eaten. She said that she has seen rats maim birds and once had to shake her leg to keep a rat from crawling on her leg.
“It’s like something from a horror movie,” Lajeunesse said. “It’s not OK.”
Para told the commission that the inspection, which occurred at 3:30 p.m., should have taken place early in the morning to check for signs of rats.
Para also said that SOS doesn’t have proper permits because the permits were in Fox’s name.
Pilston said SOS is in the process of getting the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service permits transferred to the organization. He anticipates having FWC permits by the end of the week, while Tucker said that an FWS official told her the agency would recommend approval.
Both organizations told her they had no intention of closing SOS.
But, when commissioners questioned the investigation, Tucker admitted staff didn’t ask about violations at the facility.
Commissioners seemed especially concerned when Lajeunesse showed them a picture of a black mold spot on the facility’s ceiling. Pilston said the picture was taken in a room that’s in disrepair and isn’t currently used.
Pilston also said that the allegations, if true, took place when Fox was in charge of bird care.
Commissioner Paul Caragiulo expressed his concerns toward the end of the discussion.
“We’ve had folks come down and say one thing very convincingly,” he said to Pilston. “I’m not leveling any charges against you … At the end of the day, I’m uncomfortable with what I’ve seen and heard.”
Mayor Shannon Snyder made a motion that passed unanimously directing staff to investigate issues discussed at the meeting and to gather all reports, including complaints, about the facility from the FWC, FWS and Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office from the last five years.
Lee Fox and her supporters allege there’s been an increase in euthanasia at the facility.
“All I know is, they put a bunch of birds to sleep after I left,” Fox said. “I have no idea how many. I don’t know the species; I don’t know they numbers.”
SOS CEO David Pilston acknowledges that more birds are now euthanized at SOS — a fact he attributes to SOS coming into compliance with wildlife regulations about which birds to euthanize.
“Lee Fox routinely ignored those regulations,” states an FAQ released to the media three days before Saturday’s rally.
Pilston told the Longboat Observer that SOS kept birds in its hospital for years even though the facility’s permits allow it to keep a bird in rehabilitation for 180 days before either finding a permanent home for it or euthanizing it. He said a team of veterinarians determined that several birds in the hospital should be euthanized; SOS sought a second opinion before putting down each of those birds.
“What everybody wants to do is the humane thing,” he said. “If a bird is suffering and there’s nothing you can do, the reasonable thing is to end that suffering.”
But Fox denies that birds were improperly kept alive under her care. She said her policy was to euthanize birds if they didn’t show signs of improvement within five days.
The only bird that remained in the hospital for more than 180 days was a hawk named Sparky who flew into a methane burner at a local landfill and had most of her feathers burned off. She was kept in the facility for approximately one year so that her feathers could grow back before her return to the wild last September, according to Fox.
Contact Robin Hartill at [email protected].