When an oil spill occurs, birds and marine mammals are often injured or killed by oil that pollutes their habitat. Without human intervention, many distressed birds and animals have no chance of survival. Much has been learned about the care and treatment of oiled birds and animals through experience with recent oil spill incidents. First, the need for immediate response is essential for rescuing birds and marine mammals. Second, personnel training is needed. The rehabilitation of oiled wildlife is a complex medical and technical procedure, and volunteers must be properly trained. Training workshops, which involve more than 200 hours of work, may be available through a variety of organizations such as:
Third, a commitment must be made to reclaim oiled wildlife using proven, documented procedures, and avoiding shortcuts. Finally, open communication with other response agencies is crucial for any wildlife rescue operation to be successful.
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Many government agencies and private organizations help to rescue marine animals and birds that have been exposed to oil pollution. When an oil spill occurs, there is often a plan to help these groups cooperate to save as many animals as possible. While the government is responsible for animal rescue efforts, many private organizations assist in rescuing injured wildlife. Before any person or organization can handle or confine birds or mammals for rescue, however, they must get special permits that are issued by State and Federal officials.
If oil is spilled into a marine environment, the first step to stop the crisis is to control the release and spread of oil at its source. This prevents any additional oil exposure to wildlife and coastal areas. At the same time, efforts are made to keep animals away from possible contamination. Devices such as propane scare cans, floating dummies and helium-filled balloons are often used to scare animals, particularly birds, away from oily areas.
For areas that have been polluted by oil, rescuers must capture affected birds as quickly as possible in order to save them. Once birds have been captured, they are taken immediately to treatment centers where they are given medical treatment and cleaned.
If treatment centers are not available nearby, temporary facilities must be built in local warehouses or other large buildings that offer electricity, hot water, and ventilation. The International Bird Rescue Research Center of Cordelia and San Pedro, CA, has designed a bird cleaning facility that can be operated from a trailer, so that a truck can bring the facility to the scene of an accident quickly.
Minimizing stress is critical for ensuring that captured birds survive. Rescue parties usually will contact rehabilitation workers even before they arrive, to make sure that they are prepared to care for the captured birds immediately. This ensures that the birds are treated as quickly as possible.
Once a bird has been brought to a rehabilitation center, basic procedures are followed. First, oil is flushed from its eyes and intestines. Heavily oiled birds are wiped with absorbent cloths to remove patches of oil. Rehabilitation workers also conduct an initial examination to detect broken bones, cuts, or other injuries. Stomach-coating medicines may be administered orally to prevent additional absorption of oil inside the bird's stomach. The bird is then warmed and placed in a quiet area. Curtains are often hung around the area to limit the bird's contact with people.
Nutrition is essential for the recovery of oiled birds. Wild birds will generally learn to feed themselves from pans or other containers as soon as they begin to feel healthy. In many cases, however, the birds must be force-fed until they are able to feed on their own.
After a bird is alert, responsive, and stable, and its body's fluid balance restored to normal, detergent is gently stroked into its feathers to remove the oil. An oiled bird may require three or more washings to remove the oil entirely.
After its feathers are completely rinsed, the bird is placed in a clean holding pen lined with sheets or towels. The pen is warmed with heat lamps, and surrounded with curtains to minimize human contact. If behavior appears normal and a bird's condition remains stable, it is allowed to swim. The bird then begins to preen and realign its feathers to restore them to their original structure, helping the bird to become waterproof again.
Before a bird can be released, it must "pass" the waterproofing test. That is, it must demonstrate buoyancy (the ability to float) and water-repellency (the ability to keep water away from its body). Once a bird passes the test, it is slowly exposed to temperatures comparable to outside weather. Its weight and muscle structure should be average for its species, and it should show no signs of disease. Rehabilitated birds are banded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service , and are released early in the day to an appropriate habitat.
Two primary groups of marine animals may be affected during an oil spill. The first group, pinnipeds, includes animals such as walruses, harbor seals, and sea lions. These animals are quite large, and rely on blubber under their skin to stay warm. Harbor seal mothers give birth on isolated beaches and small rocky islands. Newborn pups are not yet protected by a layer or blubber, and do not enter the water until a few days after birth. Some scientists are concerned that when a seal pup's protective fur coat becomes oiled, its warming qualities are reduced, increasing the likelihood of death from exposure. When these animals are seriously distressed, they are handled by marine mammal stranding networks, such as the Marine Mammal Center in San Francisco, California.
The second group of fur-bearing marine mammals includes sea otters and fur seals. These animals do not have a layer of blubber, but instead rely on their thick fur coats to maintain warmth. If the coat becomes dirty through contact with oil or other polluting substances, its protection may be lost, and the animal will become chilled in icy waters. Sea otters, in particular, groom themselves extensively and are at risk from swallowing toxins.
The Hubbs Research Center, in San Diego, California, specializes in mammal rescue efforts. The Center employs experienced animal handlers to ensure the best treatment of stricken animals. Other animal welfare organizations, such as Friends of the Sea Otter and local Societies for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, provide marine mammal rehabilitation sites.
Specific techniques are employed by the Hubbs Center and other organizations to help oiled marine mammals to recover. After an animal is captured and transported to a marine rehabilitation facility, it is checked for hypothermia and dehydration, then prepared for cleaning. The otter is lightly sedated during the washing process, which is usually done by a team of two workers. One restrains the animal and the other washes it with a mild detergent. Once rinsed, the otter is hand-rubbed with towels and dried with hand dryers. Through its natural grooming process, the otter preens itself, distributing an oil-like fluid produced by glands in its skin. In about seven days, the otter's fur will regain its water-repellency.
During the recuperation process, an otter's body temperature and eating habits are monitored. It is fed a variety of its favorite foods, including fish, squid, shrimp, and scallops. As its health improves, the animal is moved to a holding tank. Slowly, it is introduced to its natural habitat. Often, an otter will try to return to a habitat that is still contaminated. For this reason, released otters are tagged with tracking devices. Some are held for longer periods of time in order to give cleanup crews additional time to remove more oil from the area.
After the Exxon Valdez oil spill on March 24, 1989, otter rehabilitation and pre-release centers were built in Valdez, Seward, and Homer, Alaska. These facilities remained in operation until September 1989. The three centers treated a total of 357 otters and released 197 into Prince William Sound and along the Kenai Peninsula. Because of concerns for their health, an additional 24 adult otters were sent to various seaquariums. In addition, 13 otter pups, most of which were born in captivity, were transferred to seaquariums because they were too young to be released.