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Save Our Seabirds boosts visitors, donations by stopping admission fees

CEO Aaron Virgin plans to revitalize and distinguish the City Island-based aviary center as its own attraction.

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When Aaron Virgin stepped into the role of CEO of Save Our Seabirds and stopped charging admission fees to the City Island location, more than a few eyebrows raised. Only time would tell if his gamble would pay off or bust.

Aug. 4 marked Virgin’s first anniversary, and SOS is seeing a full house with more visitors and donations than ever.  

One of SOS’s past marketing strategies was to snag visitors who went to Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium by offering a half-price ticket with every paid admission to Mote. Even without reimbursement from Mote, the strategy made sense because they see so many more visitors than SOS, but there was an unexpected downside. 

“They feel like we’re a third attraction,” Virgin said. He overheard a mother tell her kids, “We can see birds for free.” Virgin’s plan is to distinguish SOS as its own attraction with a much larger focus on the bird hospital, something people can’t see on their own.    

For now, instead of turning away those who would rather birdwatch on the beach, he welcomes them with an open door and an electronic donation kiosk at the entrance. 

CEO Aaron Virgin at Save Our Seabirds. SOS now accepts electronic donations. (Photo by Lesley Dwyer)
CEO Aaron Virgin at Save Our Seabirds. SOS now accepts electronic donations. (Photo by Lesley Dwyer)

When addressing the board of directors, Virgin said, “Let's see what the attendance is and if people will make donations close to or more than the amount we previously charged.”

As it turns out, visitors would rather donate than pay another admission fee. COVID-19 shut the sanctuary down for 18 months, so its last full year of operation was 2019. That year, 25,000 visitors paid $60,000 in admission fees. 

“For the first six months of 2022, we have had more than 76,000 people visit and raised about $40,000 in donations in lieu of charging an entrance fee,” Virgin said. 

Virgin has a three-phase plan for revitalizing and expanding SOS: focusing on the aviaries, then the hospital and then the nature center.

The aviaries have undergone years of repairs, but they need to be replaced. The purchase prices range from $10,000 to $50,000, but it’s not quite as simple as just buying new aviaries.

Owl, osprey and sandhill crane juveniles need surrogates. Virgin jokingly compared the birds to rent-controlled tenants he can’t evict. 

“There’s a whole aviary I can’t even tear down,” he said. “You can’t just then say, ‘All right, you gotta go.’ We’re just going to put you out with another pair. They’ll reject it and kill it, so they have to stay at our facility.” 

The aviaries will be finished over the next 18 months, plenty of time to design a more modern avian hospital incorporating microscopes and X-ray capabilities. Virgin estimates the hospital will take two years to plan and six to eight months to build. 

“The hospital will be renovated to the first of its kind: an avian veterinarian nature center,” he said. 

The new hospital will allow SOS to take in more birds. Both the hospital and administration will move to the new building. phase three will renovate the current building into an enhanced visitor’s center and gift shop.




Lesley Dwyer

Lesley Dwyer is the community reporter for Longboat Key and a graduate of the University of South Florida. After earning a bachelor’s degree in professional and technical writing, she freelanced for the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. Lesley has lived in the Sarasota area for over 25 years.

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