By Rachel Brown Hackney
Long-time members of the Siesta Key Association (SKA) may recall that, years ago, Dave Thomas often asked for help from the Sarasota County Sheriff’s Office to prevent boaters from endangering manatees that routinely swam the island’s canals.
On Oct. 3, members learned of a new passion for Thomas: helping sick and injured birds.
Thomas was the person who brought up the topic of laughing gulls that had been found suffering from some type of poisoning. Indeed, he knew many details because he had been taking victims to Save Our Seabirds, the nonprofit rescue and rehabilitation facility and education center on City Island, near Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium.
SKA President Catherine Luckner pointed out that Thomas had become certified in the rescue efforts.
She also noted that the trip from Siesta to Save Our Seabirds is not a short one.
“It’s about 2 gallons [of gas] a bird,” Thomas acknowledged with a laugh, thanks to his new car, he added. “It used to be 3 gallons a bird.”
On Oct. 9, Thomas spoke on the phone about his training for this new endeavor, as well as some of his adventures in the field.
He attended a training seminar at Save Our Seabirds, he explained, during which attendees learned, over a period of several hours, how to handle birds.
“People like Jonathan [Hande] are very good about explaining and giving us helpful tips,” Thomas said, referring to the senior hospital technician at the nonprofit.
The top bird rescuer for the organization conducts a seminar about once a year, Thomas explained. That person provides handouts to the attendees, as well as equipment.
How much a graduate ends up helping out afterward, Thomas added, is a matter of “how far you’re willing to drive and how deep you’re willing to wade. … It can be a little harrowing at times.”
Then Thomas said, “I almost drowned once. … I got stuck in a slough in a residential area …”
The resident whose call led him to the scene, Thomas said, was a student, so the resident was unable to stay there and potentially offer assistance. “Normally, you have someone who’s hanging around.”
The focus of Thomas’ efforts that day was a seagull with an injured wing.
After Thomas netted the gull, “The bottom went from sand to nothing, just the mush that accumulates [from years of dead leaves and other matter in the canal].”
“It was like quicksand,” Thomas added. “Suddenly, I was up to my chest in water … and I was totally alone.”
He was about 20 feet from the shore, he said. Nobody seemed to be close by he added. The incident happened during the middle of a day.
“It took me 20 to 25 minutes to move a few inches.”
Finally, he said, he used the long handle on the net to poke around on the bottom, and he found a broken tree branch. That branch enabled him to get sufficient leverage to relocate to an area with more solid footing. “I was able to finally wiggle my way out.”
Asked about the fate of the gull, Thomas responded, “I rescued the bird.”
That incident taught him to include rope as part of his gear, along with other safety devices.
“We share that type of information at the [Save Our Seabirds] seminars,” he pointed out of the experience.
Along with a cage, gloves and rubber boats, he continued, he also has learned to carry with him towels and a change of clothes.
When SNL interviewed Rachel Pettit, avian hospital technician, about the sick gulls on Siesta, SNL noted that Thomas was the person who had alerted the SKA members to the situation.
“He’s an angel,” Pettit said.