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Oil Taking Terrible Toll on Gulf Wildlife

Oiled wildlife care rehab experts give it their all

The Humane Society of the United States


    Hundreds of species of wildlife have died before they could be removed from the contaminated environment along the Gulf Coast.

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In warehouses now converted to emergency wildlife centers in Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama, highly trained workers are caring for wildlife impacted by the massive Gulf of Mexico oil spill disaster.

By Memorial Day, 832 animals had been brought in to these special emergency centers operated by the two officially designated oiled wildlife response groups: International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) and Tri-State Bird Rescue.

The oiled animals are usually very stressed and exhausted. They can’t fly, they can’t swim, they lose their waterproofing and so they lose their insulation. Many are hypothermic. Most are exhausted.

Seventeen of the birds were treated and released away from the spill area. Sadly, though, it was too late for the vast majority of the animals—561 birds, 244 sea turtles, and 27 mammals collected along the Gulf Coast had died before they could be removed from the toxic environment. Among sea turtles collected so far, only 17 were alive. Veterinarians are doing animal autopsies—called necropsies—to determine whether the animals were victims of the oil spill. Documenting this wildlife mortality is critical as the enormous environmental crisis unfolds.

At the emergency center in Fort Jackson, La., IBRRC director Jay Holcomb knows all too well what to expect: He has lead more than 200 oil spill responses since 1988.

"T o prepare for an oil spill that currently has no foreseeable end in sight,” he said, “I looked at the closest experience I had to something like this. That was the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989.”

“Similarly, that spill covered vast areas of ocean and threatened many bird species. To prepare for large numbers of birds, we set up oiled bird rehab centers that would work for small amounts of birds and expand to thousands if needed. “

Trained Wildlife Specialists On Hand

Debra Parsons-Drake, The HSUS’s senior director for its animal care centers, has been touring the Gulf coast emergency wildlife care operations. She says the four centers have sufficient staff from IBRRC and Tri-State, as well as enough of their trained workers available right now.

“We are fortunate that highly trained, skilled, and experienced oiled wildlife specialists are on the ground right now in the Gulf region,” Drake said. “All the people they have trained over the years are ready, willing and able to respond. We could not ask for better people handling the rehabilitation efforts."

In the event that volunteers are needed, The HSUS has facilitated the required OSHA safety training for 190 National Disaster Animal Rescue Team volunteers. Additionally, about 65 HSUS staffers have taken the training, mostly those from the SPCA Wildlife Care Center in Southeast Florida, The HSUS’s largest wildlife care center. Hundreds of the center’s community volunteers also took the training.

“We are ready, if needed, to deploy quickly,” Drake said.

Ready, Watching and Waiting

At the Wildlife Care Center, clinic operations director Dr. Stefan Harsch is ready to help. The facility, which operates as a trauma center for South Florida’s extensive wildlife menagerie, is prepared to share staff and resources if needed. The center’s staff could be called upon later to assist in stabilizing affected animals. .

In talking about the special needs of oiled wildlife, Harsh said, “The oiled animals are usually very stressed and exhausted. They can’t fly, they can’t swim, they lose their waterproofing and so they lose their insulation. Many are hypothermic. Most are exhausted.”

Harsch said he worries it might be too late for many of the birds and other wildlife who call the Gulf Coast home. He suspects there are many pelagic birds—like gannets—who have landed on the Gulf to feed, and never surfaced. After contamination, they lose their buoyancy, their power to fly, and, eventually, their lives.

“They might not be washed to shore; they might just be gone,” he said. “What we’re seeing is only the tip of the iceberg here. What’s going on in the ocean, nobody knows.”

For now, Harsch, and others like him, can only wait and worry.

The HSUS has offered to take de-oiled birds for long-term rehabilitation at the center and to take any birds in need of prolonged care. Marine mammals and other native wildlife would be taken by other groups specializing in their care.

“We will have everything in place here. All of the vet staff has been trained, and we are ready if they ask us,” he said. “We have to wait and see and hope for the best. Right now, we are just watching, but we are prepared.

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