Tags: US | Gulf | Oil | Spill | Animal | Rescue

Rescuing Oiled Birds: Poignant, but Is It Futile?

Thursday, 10 Jun 2010 06:58 AM

 

Share:
  Comment  |
   Contact Us  |
  Print  
|  A   A  
  Copy Shortlink

Inside a warehouse-turned-refugee encampment for animals soaked with oil, rescue teams wash acrid goo from the matted feathers of brown pelicans and other seabirds and try to nurse them to health.

Wildlife rescue organizations have carried out this mercy mission after many oil spills in recent decades, hoping to save as many creatures as possible. Of all the efforts by all the workers and volunteers responding now to the nation's worst offshore spill, the attempts to cleanse these animals and set them free tug hardest on the heartstrings.

Even if the results are up for debate.

Critics call bird-washing a wasteful exercise in feel-good futility that simply buys doomed creatures a bit more time. They say the money and man-hours would be better spent restoring wildlife habitat or saving endangered species.

In the seven weeks since oil began erupting from a mile-deep well after a drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 150 pelicans, gulls, sandwich terns and other birds have been treated at a rehabilitation center 70 miles south of New Orleans.

A total of 442 birds in the Gulf region have been collected alive with visible oil; 109 oiled birds have been found dead. More are on the way, as oil slicks assault beaches and marshes that serve as breeding areas for many species.

The victims are scrubbed clean and held a week or more to recover. Then a Coast Guard plane flies them to Tampa Bay in Florida for release — far enough away, workers hope, that the birds won't return to oiled waters and get soaked again. Birds treated from this disaster have been tagged, and none has been spotted in oil again.

It's all part of a broader animal care initiative overseen by federal agencies and operated largely by nonprofit groups, with funding from BP PLC. Other centers focus on turtles and marine mammals.

"All of us here taking care of the wildlife feel it's important," said Rhonda Murgatroyd of Wildlife Response Services in Houma, La. "We can't just leave them there — somebody has to take care of them."

A noble sentiment, said Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University. But the hard reality is that many, if not most, oiled creatures probably won't live long after being cleansed and freed, he said.

"Once they've gone through that much stress, particularly with all the human handling and confinement, it's very difficult," Kendall said. "Some species might tolerate it better than others, but when you compare the benefits to the costs ... I am skeptical."

The arm of the federal government that nominally oversees offshore rigs agrees with Kendall, and has for some time.

"Studies are indicating that rescue and cleaning of oiled birds makes no effective contribution to conservation, except conceivably for species with a small world population," the U.S. Minerals Management Service said in a 2002 environmental analysis of proposed Gulf oil drilling projects. "A growing number of studies indicate that current rehabilitation techniques are not effective in returning healthy birds to the wild."

Fewer than 10 percent of brown pelicans that were cleaned and marked for tracing after a 1990 spill in Southern California were accounted for two years later, while more than half the pelicans in a control group could be found, three scientists with the University of California, Davis, reported in a paper published in 1996. The formerly oiled birds also showed no signs of breeding.

Dan Anderson, a professor emeritus of conservation biology at the University of California at Davis who led the study, said last week he still questions how well the rescue missions succeed but doesn't oppose them.

"If nothing else, we're morally obligated to save birds that seem to be saveable," Anderson said.

Besides, bird rehabilitation groups have improved their methods the past couple of decades, he said.

A 2002 study by Humboldt State University scientists found that gulls treated after a California spill survived just as well as gulls that were not oiled. Rescue supporters also point to data showing high survival rates for penguins receiving care from a South African foundation that has handled more than 50,000 oiled seabirds since 1968.

Rescue missions can convey a false impression that damage from oil spills can be fixed, said Jim Estes, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who worked on the federal effort to save animals after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.

"Oil may be doing a species considerable harm, but rehabilitation won't change that," Estes said. "It will just help a relatively small number of individuals from suffering and dying."

At the Fort Jackson warehouse, where shivering pelicans huddled inside pens awaiting their turn to be cleansed, such criticisms are shrugged off.

"What do you want us to do? Let them die?" said Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, who has aided oiled animals for 40 years.

Most birds arrive at rescue centers hungry, dehydrated and exhausted, having neglected eating in the frantic struggle to clean themselves. Once a bird is strong enough, two workers cover it in warm vegetable oil to remove the sticky oil, then apply dish soap and scrub parts of its head with a toothbrush.

It's time-consuming and expensive. Cleaning a single pelican can require 300 gallons of water. After the Exxon Valdez, some studies estimated that $15,000 had been spent for each marine bird treated, a figure others said was exaggerated. Scientists with the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in California said it costs them $600 to $750 to clean a bird.

James Harris, a senior wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helping care for birds sullied by the current spill, said critics also forget that many rescued animals will produce offspring — especially brown pelicans, which were taken off the federal endangered list only last year.

"It may be one pelican to me," he said, "but it could represent a couple dozen pelicans to my children and could be in the tens of hundreds for my grandchildren."

——

Flesher reported from Traverse City, Mich. Associated Press writer Mary Foster in Fort Jackson and AP Science Writer Seth Borenstein in Washington contributed to this report.

© Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Share:
  Comment  |
   Contact Us  |
  Print  
  Copy Shortlink
Around the Web
Join the Newsmax Community
Please review Community Guidelines before posting a comment.
>> Register to share your comments with the community.
>> Login if you are already a member.
blog comments powered by Disqus
 
Email:
Retype Email:
Country
Zip Code:
 
Hot Topics
Follow Newsmax
Like us
on Facebook
Follow us
on Twitter
Add us
on Google Plus
Around the Web
You May Also Like

Reports: Obamas Have Purchased Estate in California

Tuesday, 22 Jul 2014 09:33 AM

The Obamas have purchased a home in tony Rancho Mirage, California, the Los Angeles Times reports.

 . . .

Ted Nugent Concert at Tribe Casino Canceled Over 'Racist' Remarks

Tuesday, 22 Jul 2014 07:39 AM

An upcoming Ted Nugent concert at an Idaho casino owned by a Native American tribe has been canceled because of the cons . . .

Robert Downey Jr. Tops Forbes List of Highest Paid Actors With $75M

Tuesday, 22 Jul 2014 08:32 AM

Robert Downey Jr., star of Marvel's iconic "Iron Man" film franchise, has been ranked as Hollywood's highest paid actor, . . .

Most Commented

Newsmax, Moneynews, and Independent. American. are registered trademarks of Newsmax Media, Inc. Newsmax TV, NewsmaxWorld, NewsmaxHealth, are trademarks of Newsmax Media, Inc.

 
NEWSMAX.COM
America's News Page
©  Newsmax Media, Inc.
All Rights Reserved