By Lee Schoenbart
Free Flight was in free fall, or at least that's how its veterinarian was feeling.
During the last two decades, Dr. Robert Stonebreaker went from caring avian aficionado, when he bought Free Flight, to caretaker and overworked veterinarian in order to pay for care and upkeep of his ever-growing brood of exotic birds. For more than 20 years, Stonebreaker's veterinary practice at the adjacent Animal and Bird Hospital in Del Mar has subsidized the sanctuary.
"Free Flight has sort of become a wayward sanctuary for birds, and it was all supported by the pet hospital," said Stonebreaker, 53, who earned his doctor of veterinary medicine from UC Davis. "And that's been a big problem, doing this for quite a number of years. Now, with the way the economy is, it's really taken a toll on me.
"We just receive our nonprofit status, and that was quite an accomplishment," Stonebreaker said, referring to the sanctuary. "Nonprofit status is allowing the board to take over (the sanctuary) and make decisions rather than me. Hopefully it will be self-sustaining and the vet hospital won't have to be paying all the salaries and overhead that goes along with that.
"It is on the property, and we're hoping that once it can fly," Stonebreaker said, with no pun intended, "then they'll in turn be able to pay back some (of the money) and pay rent to the hospital."
Stonebreaker has been the sole proprietor of Free Flight since he bought it in 1990 when it was a small boarding, grooming and training facility for exotic birds. He said that over the years, the popularity of exotic birds has grown steadily.
"We're open to the public and we teach them about proper husbandry, care and different types of birds," he said. "We've had classes here before, and my staff goes out to the schools and gives lectures. During the summer, we have camps that come through where the kids learn all about how to properly care for these exotic birds."
While Free Flight is the sanctuary and educational showcase, it's Stonebreaker's pet hospital that handles all the behind-the-scenes action. The bird refuge already existed on a smaller scale when he came on board to assist the previous owner with medical service provided by the former Del Mar Veterinary Hospital.
"When I took over, I changed the name to Animal and Bird Hospital," Stonebreaker said, "so a lot of people knew this was my 'home' to treat birds and other exotics. I've seen everything here: hamsters, rabbits, guinea pigs, monkeys and some reptiles. We even had a sloth in not too long ago.
"Free Flight has been my focus, with the idea that it was a natural outdoor place where people could leave their bird when they were out of town," he said. "It's nice to be in an outdoor environment where they get pampered, if you will, by my staff."
It's easy for visitors to get caught up in the majesty and spectacle of watching these beautiful creatures at Free Flight, but Stonebreaker cautions them to put a lot of thought into buying an exotic bird.
"They have to know it's a big commitment," the veterinarian advised. "It's a lot of work to take care of them. It's not just buy a bird and put it in a cage with some food and water."
The sanctuary and hospital are at 2132 Jimmy Durante Blvd. in Del Mar.
For more information, call (858) 481-3148 or visit www.freeflightbirds.com and www.animalandbirdhospital.com.