Oil spill rescue in the wild: an inside look at the fight to save the animals

A brown pelican was the first victim of the oil leak, wildlife officials said. The bird was euthanized on Sunday after being injured in the spill off the coast of Orange County, Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN), said at a news conference Monday morning.

Officials captured four live birds Monday afternoon, Ziccardi said. A coot, ruddy duck and pelican were caught on Sunday and a sander arrived on Monday. Other oiled birds have been seen in flight, but they were difficult to catch, he said.

“When we learned of the large size of the slick with the volume reported to be released, we were very concerned about this impact,” Ziccardi said. “In our initial assessment of the area, the number of birds in the general area appears to be lower than we feared.”

With about 126,000 gallons of oil spilled about 8 miles from Huntington Beach, California, wildlife conservation experts are concerned about animals.

The number of deaths is unknown. Wildlife experts collect animals as they come to shore.

“At this point, we are cautiously optimistic about the number of animals that may be affected right now,” said Ziccardi, adding that it is too early to tell the impact on wildlife.

Birds come first to help, then marine life

An infected sanderling from the oil spill is being cared for and examined by the California Department of Fish & Personnel in the wild.

Birds are a priority because they are most likely to come ashore after an oil spill, Ziccardi said.

“Birds have a high body temperature; they use their feathers almost like a dry suit to keep themselves warm in the marine environment,” Ziccardi said. “When they get dirty, their first reaction is to get warm as quickly as possible, so they usually come ashore quickly so they can try to keep warm.”

The organizations rely on offshore cleanup companies that can spot dolphins or other marine life in need, he said.

10 years after Deepwater Horizon oil spill, oil spill found in thousands of fish, study says

The good news for dolphins is that these mammals are “much less prone to oil impact than birds,” Ziccardi said.

There isn’t enough information to speak of the long-term effects of an oil spill on marine mammals, Ziccardi said. It depends on how much oil marine life ingests or breathes in, he said.

“Just now we’re starting to learn some of those long-term effects of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill more than 10 years ago,” Ziccardi said.

Oil pollution was found in thousands of fish 10 years later the disaster, according to a study published in 2020. Millions of gallons of oil spewed into the waters of the Gulf of Mexico over the course of 87 days in that spill.

Leave the well-oiled pet care to the experts

OWCN is based at the University of California at Davis (UC Davis). His job is to respond to oil spills that affect or could threaten wildlife across the state, Ziccardi said.

The organization has trained more than 1,600 first responders to respond to an oil spill. Since 1994, OWCN has responded to more than 75 oil spills and cared for 10,000 animals.

Animals collected from the oily waves have a chance to recover and return to the wild, Ziccardi said.

“Oil is a traumatic experience for these animals, but in our experience, to the extent that we have responded to large-scale spills, we have had a success rate of over 50% to 75% in returning animals to a clean environment.” he said.

How they clean and care for the animals

Field teams are on site to collect animals and take them to a “field stabilization site” so they can give them first aid, Ziccardi said.

“We give them warmth, we give them moisture, we give them some time from the stress of being trapped here. Then we have organized transport from this location to our Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center,” he says.

When the animals are in the center, the workers photograph each animal and document as much as they can. The animals are then stabilized for 24 to 48 hours, he said.

They are stripped of the oil before their human helpers give them “time, proper nutrition, observe them carefully,” Ziccardi said. For birds, this process takes an average of 10 to 14 days, he added.

If you see well-oiled animals, don’t pick them up. It’s not safe for humans or the animals, Ziccardi said.

He encourages people to call the 877-UCD-OWCN hotline to report oiled animals. The organization does not hire volunteers, but instead relies on its 1,600 trained first responders, he added.

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