By Jane Bartnett
Saving Siesta Key’s seabirds is a pursuit for which Siesta Key resident Dave Thomas has become passionate.
He is “our best seabird rescuer and our only volunteer on the Key,” said Jocelyn Shearer of the non-profit Save Our Seabirds organization.
Delivering an impassioned plea for volunteers while speaking last month to the Siesta Key Association, Shearer said “We have over 5,000 distress calls every year and 12 full-time staff. We need more people like Dave Thomas.”
During the course of the past three years, Thomas has rescued hundreds of birds including eagles, blue herons, owls and a variety of smaller seabirds. He has been responsible for saving the lives of abandoned baby birds, pelicans and other birds that are accidentally hooked by fishermen, those that suffer from collisions with cars, boats, golf balls, and home and office windows.
He’s also come to the aid of birds that have been injured by cats or dogs that disrupt their nests.
“Red tide has also impacted our shore birds,” said Thomas, who has had a number of dramatic rescues with eagles and other birds of prey that are injured and those that have eaten poisoned mice and rats.
Although Thomas is a true animal lover, the welfare of seabirds was not always foremost on his mind. He began his career as a professional ice skater and went on to hold executive positions at Palmetto-based Feld Entertainment.
When he retired from Feld as a senior executive, he never imagined that his days would be filled with rescuing injured seabirds. It was a far cry from his high-level work in the entertainment industry that brought him to all points of the world.
It all began one day when Thomas was out for a walk with his dog and he discovered a baby owl on the side of the road.
“It was a fledgling and looked kind of stunned, as though it had fallen out of its nest,” he recalled. “I took the owl to Blue Pearl Pet Hospital, the emergency veterinary hospital on South Tamiami.”
The Blue Pearl veterinary team told Thomas that the little bird would be all right, but it needed further care at the Save our Seabirds avian clinic. Thomas agreed to drive the animal to the hospital for injured birds near the Mote Marine campus on City Island.
The trip with the baby owl, who was later released into the wild, became the first of many.
Intrigued by the Save our Seabirds hospital, which is staffed with a resident veterinarian and houses the organization’s Wild Bird Learning Center where birds that have been rescued but not able to return to the wild have a permanent home, Thomas decided to volunteer his time.
He registered for a one-time rescue class that runs for about three hours and invested in gloves, nets, eye-protection gear, and other equipment recommended for bird rescues.
In the beginning, Thomas said, volunteers are encouraged to begin as drivers, transporting injured birds to the hospital. As time went on, Thomas became more involved in rescuing birds whose injuries were more critical.
“Saving a life and helping a helpless animal in a tough situation so that they can go free again is a very rewarding experience,” Thomas said of his work. “The problem is that I can’t be everywhere.”
Currently, he explained, “I cover the Key, and as far south as Venice and as far north as Bradenton and in extreme cases, east to Arcadia.”
A strong advocate for the organization, Thomas encourages others to volunteer and to get involved.
“We really need people with free time to transport the birds,” he said. “It’s a great opportunity. Every area of the Key and south Sarasota needs help. Together, we can make a difference in the lives of these beautiful animals.”
One of Thomas’ fondest memories is of a rescued and rehabilitated swallow-tailed kite that the National Audubon Society calls the epitome of beauty and grace.
“They ride the winds from Sarasota to Peru,” said Thomas, recalling his discovery of the large migratory bird that was helplessly tangled in a bougainvillea plant.
Because of the bird’s need to soar, Thomas took him to a rooftop and set the bird free. “To see him fly away was just wonderful,” Thomas said.
Contact saveourseabirds.org to volunteer.