Living the Scientific Life (Scientist, Interrupted)

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Bird rescue personnel Danene Birtell (L) and Heather Nevill (R) hold an oiled brown pelican, found on Storm Island in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast of Louisiana, that will be washed at the treatment facility at Fort Jackson, Louisiana, USA. BP has contracted bird rescue groups to rehabilitate wildlife affected by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. The birds are examined, thoroughly washed and then allowed to recover.

Image: Paul Buck/EPA.

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

British Petroleum’s current disaster in the Gulf of Mexico is unfortunately one of many oil spill events that occur every year due to rampant corporate greed and systemic corner-cutting. These events result in the slow agonized deaths of millions of animals, birds and fish in addition to damage and destruction to entire ecosystems. After dead and dying animals wash up on public beaches, the public becomes alarmed and rushes to their aid, setting up rescue stations to clean and rehabilitate oiled birds and marine mammals. At least a few experts have openly advocated killing all oiled wildlife immediately, claiming that animal lovers are merely prolonging their distress and suffering.

“Kill, don’t clean,” recommends Silvia Gaus, a biologist at NationalPark Wattenmeer (Wadden Sea National Park) in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein. Unfortunately, despite some short-term success in cleaning birds and releasing them into the wild, few, if any, have a chance of surviving even for a few months, reports Ms Gaus, who has worked as a biologist for 20 years.

“According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under 1 percent,” Ms Gaus explained. “We, therefore, oppose cleaning birds.”

Um, hello? “Serious studies”?

Despite her blunt comments, Ms Gaus does have some experience with oil spills: she was reportedly part of the environmental cleanup team after a ship, the Pallas, grounded itself in October 1998, spilling 90 tons of crude into into the icy North Sea wintering area for Common Eiders, Somateria mollissima. That disaster led to the deaths of more than 13,000 birds due to drowning, freezing or stress.

When oiled, seabirds are vulnerable to drowning because their feathers’ waterproofing qualities are destroyed and their downy feathers’ insulative properties are lost, leading to either hypothermia or sometimes, as is the case for many Gulf birds, hyperthermia. Oiled birds lose body weight rapidly as their metabolism increases to compensate for their falling body temperature. Sticky, oiled feathers are heavy and cannot trap air between them to keep the birds buoyant, so they cannot fly and often sink into a watery grave below the waves. Thus, birds are very particular about their plumage, and use their bills and tongues to remove debris, including oil, despite its terrible taste and smell. They sometimes ingest the oil, which causes health problems, such as ulcers and damage to internal organs that detoxify the blood.

“Their instinct to clean [their feathers] is greater than their instinct to hunt, and as long as their feathers are dirty with oil, they won’t eat,” Ms Gaus pointed out. (Actually, it is much more likely that the birds’ “instinct” to clean their feathers is simply a response to the gravity of their situation: they are not physically capable of doing anything else until their feathers are clean.)

But even lightly-oiled birds that manage to remove the oil from their feathers and restore their waterproofing qualities can suffer liver and kidney damage that leads to their premature deaths. This is because these organs remove toxins from the blood — toxins such as those contained in oil. It is thought that low boiling point aromatic and saturated hydrocarbons contained in oil present the greatest danger to marine life and to the people who try to save them.

According to Ms Gaus, forcing oiled birds to swallow “coal” [activated charcoal] solutions (the same treatment used in hospital emergency rooms to remedy poisoning in humans) or Pepto Bismol (as animal-rescue workers are doing along the Gulf Coast) to prevent the poisonous effects of ingested oil is “ineffective.” On the contrary, I think emergency room personnel would strongly disagree with Ms Gaus’s assessment of one of their treatments, and one should also note that other rescue groups report “some success” for the Pepto Bismol treatment (i. e. DOI: 10.1016/S1055-937X(99)80032-2.)

Oil toxicity is not diminished by the use of chemical dispersants. Chemical dispersants are intended to protect birds and other animals by breaking up the oil slick and to keep it from making landfall. But they don’t neutralize contaminants nor their poisons and worse, these dispersants contain harmful toxins of their own that add to the poisonous effects of oil.

“There is a chemical toxicity to the dispersant compound that in many ways is worse than oil,” warned Richard Charter, an expert on marine biology and oil spills who is Senior Policy Advisor for Marine Programs at Defenders of Wildlife and chairman at the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council.

Even though the precise ingredients in these dispersants is a closely-guarded trade secret, a worker safety sheet for COREXIT®, the dispersant currently being applied to the Gulf oil spill, shows it contains 2-butoxyethanol, and a proprietary organic sulfonic acid salt with a small concentration of propylene glycol. According to the Alaska Community Action on Toxics, the use of COREXIT® during the Exxon Valdez oil spill caused “respiratory, nervous system, liver, kidney and blood disorders” in people — a concern for wildlife as well as for those working to save oiled wildlife. According to the EPA, COREXIT® is more toxic than dispersants made by several competitors and less effective in handling southern Louisiana crude. Apparently, the choice to use COREXIT® instead of other, less dangerous and more effective dispersants was primarily due to profit motives: COREXIT® is produced by Nalco Holding Company, which is associated with BP and Exxon.

In addition to increasing the overall toxin load, dispersants concentrate oil poisons in the water. These poisons migrate great distances, poisoning and killing plankton, fish eggs and crustaceans. When consumed by fish, birds, whales and humans, these toxins cause liver and kidney damage or carcinogenic effects.

“It’s a trade-off — you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t — of trying to minimize the damage coming to shore,” Dr Charter remarked. “But in so doing you may be more seriously damaging the ecosystem offshore.”

Even when oiled birds are recovered alive, they often are exhausted, malnourished, dehydrated and immunosuppressed. Some individuals may not survive the added stress of being captured, handled, transported, force-fed, washed, and rehabilitated — all of which involves close proximity to humans, experiences that presumably led Ms Gaus to her “euthanize immediately” declaration.

But Ms Gaus is not completely alone in her assessment: surprisingly, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) agree with Ms Gaus’s recommendation — but for heavily oiled birds.

“Birds, those that have been covered in oil and can still be caught, can no longer be helped,” stated a WWF spokesman during the 2002 Prestige clean-up effort. “Therefore, the World Wildlife Fund is very reluctant to recommend cleaning.”

The Prestige spill killed 250,000 birds off the western coasts of France, Spain and Portugal. Of the thousands of birds that were cleaned, most died within a few days, and only 600 were released into the wild. According to an oft-quoted (but unnamed, unreferenced and mysteriously unfindable) British study of the tragically mishandled Prestige spill, the median lifespan of those 600 released birds was only seven days.

A dead cormorant on the beach on Ship Island, Mississippi
as concern continues that the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico
may harm animals in its path.
It is unknown if the bird died due to the oil spill.

Image: Joe Raedle/Getty Images/AFP.

However, in contrast to those grim prognostications, “serious studies” show that many lightly-oiled birds do survive the cleaning process and are successfully released into the wild. Further, as our experience dealing with oiled wildlife (sadly) grows, increasing numbers of heavily-oiled birds (such as these) that are recovered alive are surviving their horrific ordeal.

One agency that specializes in dealing with oiled birds is the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC). Since its formation in early 1971, the IBRRC has responded to more than 200 oil spills throughout the US and its territories, and in seven other countries, caring for more than 140 species of birds, mammals and reptiles, including threatened and endangered species. Their reported release rates range from 100% to 25%, averaging between 50% to 80%.

Unfortunately, Ms Gaus ignores IBRRC data documenting that bird survival rates differ with each oil spill due to the many variables involved, including the toxicity of the oil, the warmth of the water, how rapidly the birds are collected and stabilized, the bird’s condition prior to being oiled, and the species affected [IBRRC FAQ; also see DOI: 10.1016/0025-326X(82)90346-0 and DOI: 10.1016/S1055-937X(99)80032-2].

Instead of basing her opinions and comments on available data, Ms Gaus instead relies on worst-case-scenarios to dictate universal policies for dealing with oiled birds and wildlife. Not all oil spills have equally dismal release and survival rates: Tseng (1997) reports a release rate of 78% for King Eiders, Somateria spectabilis, and Leggett et al (1997) report a release rate of approximately 90% for Brown Pelicans, Pelecanus occidentalis.

Of course, released birds may die later, as the data from the mishandled Prestige oil spill indicate. But follow-up telemetry data for rehabilitated American Coots, Fulca americana, and Western Gulls, Larus spp., indicate that survival rates are much better than reported. In fact, another study of oiled gulls and an unoiled control group that were subjected to the same cleaning procedures prior to release showed identical survival (100%) for the 8 month life of the transmitters (as cited by Jessup & Mazet, 1999). Certainly, it is in our best interests (and those of wildlife) to understand why there are such wildly variable survival rates before forcing a blanket policy to “euthanize all oiled birds immediately.”

Ms Gaus also conveniently ignores the fact that at least some types of birds, such as penguins, pelicans and murres, are quite tolerant to prolonged, close proximity to humans. Additionally, she doesn’t even consider the fact that because some species are endangered (for example, Brown Pelicans, the state bird for Louisiana, comprise the majority of live, oiled birds turning up in rescue centers, were just removed from the endangered species list in November 2009), the loss of even a few individuals can have tremendous impacts upon the genetic diversity of their population. So it is critical to save as many oiled birds as possible, and to use the experiences from both our successes and failures to improve our techniques accordingly.

I disagree with Ms Gaus’s gloomy policy. Because all people use petroleum or petroleum-related products in some form, I maintain that it is both ethical and responsible to try to save as many oiled birds and other wildlife as we can. Some wildlife management professionals argue that cleaning oiled birds isn’t worth the monetary cost and effort since little or no impact can be made on a species level. But actually, we don’t know this to be true. Additionally, I ask you; what amount of money and effort is too much, and who should be making those decisions anyway? Further, what do we, as scientists and as a society, gain by trying to save these unfortunate animals? Certainly, I think it is imperative to develop our technology to the best level possible so we can use it to help all birds, whether their populations are doing fine or they are threatened or endangered, so we are capable of helping them in the sad event that they are impacted by an oil spill. This requires that we continually refine and improve our techniques and equipment to do the job properly.

Even if my arguments are unacceptable, what is the alternative? The public will be justifiably outraged if government wildlife agencies, as a matter of policy, do nothing except euthanize oiled birds when they come ashore or are captured at sea — particularly in view of ample published scientific data showing that oiled birds can be successfully rehabilitated. Additionally, many people do feel a deep concern to make their world better and will do something on their own — why not provide the necessary training and harness that energy and put it to good use? I also think there is tremendous value in showing people the true costs of our oil dependence, so hopefully, society will begin realize that some risks are simply too great to support our endless quest to satisfy this addiction.

Last but not least, I think that each life is intrinsically valuable and that each animal is deserving of care and protection. In a world where life is not always respected and valued, I think that saving the life of even one bird sends an important message.

Sources:

International Bird Rescue Research center [also view their photostream].

Leggett R. 1997. How an oil company, Tri-State Bird Rescue, and a community saved 113 oiled brown pelicans. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on the Effects of Oil on Wildlife. Fifth International Conference, November 3-6, 1997, Monterey, California USA, 5, 76-80.

Tseng, F.S. & Goodfriend, D. 1997. Case history of an oil spill response in the Pribilof Islands. Proceedings of the Third International Conference on the Effects of Oil on Wildlife. Fifth International Conference, November 3-6, 1997, Monterey, California USA, 5, 68-72.

Tseng, F. 1999. Considerations in care for birds affected by oil spills. Seminars in Avian and Exotic Pet Medicine, 8 (1), 21-31 DOI: 10.1016/S1055-937X(99)80032-2.

Jessup, David A. & Jonna A. K. Mazet. 1999. Rehabilitation of Oiled Wildlife: Why Do It? 1999 International Oil Spill Conference.

Stowe, T. 1982. An oil spillage at a Guillemot colony. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 13 (7), 237-239 DOI: 10.1016/0025-326X(82)90346-0.

How to Help [added 6 June 2010]:

You can donate money or items to the Suncoast Seabird Sanctuary and Avian Hospital. The sanctuary is the largest nonprofit wild bird hospital in the U.S., caring for more than 8,000 injured birds each year with a trained staff on stand-by to assist with the Gulf Oil Spill Crisis, and over 700 volunteers on call if needed. If I lived in Florida, I’d work at this place!

Maybe you are a fan of Stephen Colbert? If so, he is heading up The Colbert Nation Gulf of America Fund that you can donate money to. They distribute these funds in the form of grants to nonprofits that work directly to help the people and wildlife affected by this oil spill.

IBRRC: how to help: they are not coordinating volunteer efforts, but you can donate money to their paypal account to support their efforts. If I was in the area, I’d work with this group, either as a bird cleaner or an instructor, training others how to properly clean oiled birds and wildlife.

Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research — a partner to IBRRC in this effort — where you can volunteer, donate money and “adopt a bird”!

USFWS Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response has information, phone numbers to call to report oiled wildlife, and includes links to websites for coordinating volunteer efforts for the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama.

Audubon Society lists a variety of ways you can help (volunteering, donating, etc.) and also provides phone numbers to call if you see oiled wildlife.

Deepwater Horizon Volunteer Information website containing contact information and links, much of which already appears elsewhere.

Read More:

Deepwater Horizon Day 14: $?, a very interesting blog essay about the value of saving oiled wildlife [Added 7 June 2010]

Comments

  1. #1 Jana
    June 5, 2010

    It’s interesting to see Dr. Tseng’s name come up (since I’m working with her on avian pain management research for the next year and a half). At any rate, I agree with you. The research is far from monolithic.

    One area that is under research right now, and that I think will prove to be very interesting, is the role of corticosterone stress responses, as it seems like that is a better predictor of eventual mortality (or long term reproductive losses) than the actual visible damage from the spill. Michael Romero at Tufts has done a fair amount of work on it, quite a few other people as well. I can’t find the article I’m thinking of now, but there was a really interesting paper on long-term reproductive losses in apparently healthy post-oiling birds.

    In any event, I’m all for anything that makes the horror of these spills absolutely painfully obvious to as many people as possible. And if (as in this case) BP is required to pay for the entirety of the rehabilitation costs, good god, why not give it a try? If they have to spend $20 million to successfully release one brown pelican, I am cool with that.

    The one valid point in all of that is that humane care has to be considered. There is no point in prolonging pain or distress out of naive hopes that it will end well. That said, the wildlife professionals I know are a pretty realistic lot, and very much aware of the possible issues they may be causing to their patients. If they don’t think they have a shot, they’re not going to try.

  2. #2 "GrrlScientist"
    June 5, 2010

    i am very familiar with corticosterone studies in birds. michael romero and i were in the Wingfield lab together when i was a grad student studying testosterone, and he, a postdoc, studying corticosterone. michael, who is really a sweetheart, threatened to tie me to the roof of his car for the 350-mile return trip to the university after i nearly got skunked while i was wandering around in the middle of the night in search of a bush to pee behind. (we were out in the middle of nowhere, mist-netting our research birds).

  3. #3 Tabor
    June 5, 2010

    At first I thought this post was going to end on a very dismal note, but I am glad that a rationale review means we can do a little bit right.

  4. #4 Jana
    June 5, 2010

    He is a nice guy, isn’t he? I tried desperately to get corticosterone assays into my master’s project this year, but we just don’t have time to do the ground-proofing we’d need to. His advice was still really helpful.

  5. #5 theshortearedowl
    June 5, 2010

    I am not sure I agree with Ms Gaus on cleaning vs. euthanising, but I am glad someone in the media has brought up that clean-up workers cannot simply “make it all better”. I think some sections, at least, of the public have this image that, sure the oil companies are a bit naughty but it’s really just a few birds and the eco-types go and deal with it anyway. There’s this sense that someone is “doing something about it” so it’s under control. Well, it’s not.

  6. #6 blf
    June 5, 2010

    Except for the practical problems with safe shipment, I’d suggest mailing the oiled birds found dead or which do die to BP’s HQ.

  7. #7 darchole
    June 5, 2010

    Do we even have the resources, including people who will actually go and volunteer (not just say they will) to even have this discussion? Especially in regards to the fact that the spill is still ongoing?

    I agree that that any wildlife involved in the spill, is “intrinsically valuable and that each animal is deserving of care and protection”, but I’m asking a practical question: do we have the resources to provide these things?

    The media isn’t providing much information on this part of the spill, so I really don’t know what the answer to my question is.

  8. #8 Moo
    June 5, 2010

    Is there anything proactive BP, volunteer groups, etc. could do to protect these birds prior to their being covered in oil?

    Also.. once these birds are cleaned, when/ where are they being/ going to be released? Or will they be held somewhere?

  9. #9 Luke Tiller
    June 5, 2010

    Interesting post – all the more as I stumbled across it whilst reading the Guardian Newspapers England/Bangladesh Cricket report. Certainly some food for thought here. I have to say that I personally am not a big fan of resources being spent on rehabbing, as I think the money could usually be put to better use. Still it’s hard not to have ones heart strings tugged when you see the images of these individual birds.

  10. #10 blf
    June 5, 2010

    I stumbled across it whilst reading the Guardian Newspapers England/Bangladesh Cricket report.

    Oops! Mr Grrl’s in trouble now: The entire Grauniad-reading cricket world now knows what he was doing:

    “I’m following you, sat in a cafe next to my wife whilst she writes a blog post about oiled birds,” says a man with no name. “She wouldn’t be impressed if she knew I was following the Test. She’s American, poor dear.”

  11. #11 Mr. GrrlScientist
    June 5, 2010

    True, blf. But I think only 3 people were reading today.

    I missed the Bangladesh collapse because we went to a former airfield to look around (and drink beer). We even came back with a new friend.

  12. #12 Barn Owl
    June 5, 2010

    I was interested to read that the Matter of Trust organization is collecting human hair, animal fur and fleece, feathers, and nylons to make oil-absorbent mats and booms. My work schedule doesn’t allow an extended trip to Louisiana or Mississippi this summer for bird cleaning (and so far the nearby southern Texas coast hasn’t received any of the oil spill mess), but I do have a dog and two horses. Between their shed hair, that of my friends’ horses, and mine (plus whatever I can collect from the salon when I get mine trimmed), I should be able to send a box. The horses have shed their winter coats already (the sparrows, swallows, and mockingbirds took most of that for nests, as soon as I released it from the brushes and curry combs), but there are still manes and tails to trim. Might offer to brush out my friends’ collie too, while I’m at it. Seems so simple, costs next to nothing.

  13. #13 Pat
    June 5, 2010

    All wildlife should be given a second chance. BP needs to pay for the rehabbing. They should be liable for undersea life as well. This is a catastrophic event that should not be taken lightly.

  14. #14 Laurella Desborough
    June 5, 2010

    These oiled birds DO deserve a chance at life and SHOULD be cleaned and held in a safe location until it is appropriate to release them. As I understand it, there are several wildlife organizations in the area of the spill and who are working to remove the oil from these birds. Even if the birds are never able to be reproductively competent again, they will serve as mentors to new birds that come to the area in future. Yes, there life may be shorter, but life should be the chance they are given, no matter the odds. They do deserve the chance of recovery, no matter the cost to BP.

  15. #15 Amanda
    June 6, 2010

    Totally OFF TOPIC….but it seems to me that most “environmentalists” and the people that agree with the blogger are usually “pro-choicers”.. So how about showing the same consideration to un-born fetus’ that you are showing to the beautiful birds dying out there? That last paragraph is used everyday by pro-lifers (take out “animals/birds” and put in “babies”)…and most are ridiculed for it.

  16. #16 Victor Lee Zhi Yu
    June 6, 2010

    I didn’t know that killing animals has become one of the options here. Every single animal is intrinsically valuable and therefore should be saved as much as we can. If only we can come out with a feasible model to calculate the environmental, economical and social cost and benefit, we can then make such decision with acceptable certainty. This is especially important in dealing with important environmental issues.

    I am not an expert in this so I am unsure of the validity of my statement. Can anyone please enlighten us on this? Thanks.

  17. #17 dim
    June 6, 2010

    @Amanda, poor dear, you’re confusing oiled water with a uterus’ amniotic fluid. FAIL…that’s why we stay ON topic.

  18. #18 BlindWatcher
    June 6, 2010

    “I think that each life is intrinsically valuable and that each animal is deserving of care and protection”
    I always have trouble with this sentiment when it comes to introduced animals that displace native ones (and to he honest, that they are ugly like the cane toad introduced to Australia sadly makes it even easier to dispose of them – not very pc I know)
    As I become older & slightly wiser I’m trying to reconsider what my outlook should be.
    Should I hesitate to kill a cane toad In Australia?
    If this is too far off topic, Let me know.

  19. #19 Dyan deNapoli
    June 6, 2010

    As a penguin specialist who worked as a rehabilitation manager during the rescue of 20,000 oiled African penguins from the Treasure oil spill in 2000, this is a topic near and dear to my heart. It’s true that, in some cases, the most humane thing to do is to euthanise the most severely compromised birds – but this does not neccessarily equate to the most heavily oiled birds. The IBRRC has stated that these birds are often in better physiological condition when rescued because, unlike lightly oiled birds, they cannot fly away to evade capture. So they are caught much earlier after becoming oiled, before the toxins in the oil have caused as much damage. Also, every species is unique in its ability to survive oiling and rehabilitation – and the type of oil makes a difference as well – so you can’t really make a blanket statement as to whether euthanisia or rehabilitation is the correct response.

    And in response to darchole’s question about finding enough people to help – you would be surprised and inspired by the number of people who will turn out to help animals in distress. Over the course of the three-month rescue in South Africa, more than 12,500 volunteers helped out – up to 1,000 per day – at the rescue centers. They came from all around the world and donated more than half a million hours of their time and effort to save the penguins. In the end, 90% of the oiled birds were successfully released, and they have enjoyed the same survival rate as their unoiled counterparts.

    Those volunteers were instrumental in saving the penguins, and the same will hold true for this disaster. While BP should obviously pay for all clean-up and rehabilitation efforts, it will undoubtedly be up to volunteers – led by a contingency of specialists – to do most of the grunt work. I have faith that – as in South Africa – enough caring people will show up to help save these oiled and traumatized animals as well.

  20. #20 Shannon Cotham
    June 6, 2010

    I agree with your views, completely. Even if only one bird could be saved, our species is obligated to try, because we made this mess.

  21. #21 Cassandra
    June 6, 2010

    I am an IBRRC volunteer in southern California. There are a lot of good questions here in the post and in the comments, but there is another aspect of rescue that has not been mentioned:

    With every bird we treat, we learn how to better treat the next one.

    That is part of the reason IBRRC works year-round, not just every time there is a spill. The survival rates are improved upon, and so is our knowledge of how humans affect the wildlife.

  22. #22 Janet
    June 6, 2010

    Wonderful post based as always on science and not speculation! Totally agree with your last paragraph. I am wondering if you know of any organizations where we can send funds to specifically help with cleaning oiled wildlife. Thanks if you can post any suggestions.

  23. #23 "GrrlScientist"
    June 6, 2010

    janet: i added links (in answer to your question) at the end of the piece, but am also copying them here into the comment thread, just in case you don’t re-read my piece a dozen times (although i don’t know why not): ;)

    IBRRC: how to help: they are not coordinating volunteer efforts, but you can donate money to their paypal account to support their efforts.

    Tri-State Bird Rescue & Research — a partner to IBRRC in this effort — where you can volunteer, donate money and “adopt a bird”!

    USFWS Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill Response has information, phone numbers to call to report oiled wildlife, and includes links to websites for coordinating volunteer efforts for the states of Louisiana, Mississippi, Florida and Alabama.

    Audubon Society lists a variety of ways you can help (volunteering, donating, etc.) and also provides phone numbers to call if you see oiled wildlife.

    Deepwater Horizon Volunteer Information website containing contact information and links, much of which already appears elsewhere.

  24. #24 Anne Flaherty
    June 6, 2010

    Thank you dear Penguin Specialist, Dyan deNapoli, yes it is so much more complicated than we in lay people would know. I myself always tend towards the life-affirming actions first, with attempted wisdom around the impact on the collective.

    Let us try our best to preserve what is good and keep our ecosystem whole.

  25. #25 Mike Ziccardi
    June 6, 2010

    Hi-
    Great job on your post! I am currently in the Gulf heading up the Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle efforts for the Deepwater Horizon, and these issues come up daily during this response. I have also blogged on my views on many of these same issues and additionally have submitted an article entitled “Efficacy of rehabilitating oiled birds – vain attempt or positive action?” to Biological Letters with my co-author Dr. Nils Warnock on the misleading information in this and other recent articles on the fate of rehabilitated wildlife. Thank you again!

  26. #26 George Butel
    June 6, 2010

    To kill or not to kill? The IBRRC data cited definitely favors life instead of death. Let’s forget the birds for an instant and think about a related ethical thing to do: we need to set up a tribunal like the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal, and try all the execs and managers, especially the CEO, of BP, for crimes against humanity, or, pardon me, crimes against planet earth. Hopefully, they would all be hanged; the tribunal would have to grapple with the same ethical question: to kill, or not to kill. You will never be able to get those images of oiled and dead sea birds out of your mind.

  27. #27 Carlos
    June 7, 2010

    I think its a matter of ethical responsability, and therefore we must try to clean the birds

  28. #28 Wrichik Basu
    June 7, 2010

    I understand that not all birds may survive the ordeal of cleansing and rehabilitation but that is not a good reason for not trying at all. We should make the sincerest effort possible at treating the birds and setting them free. If it becomes painfully obvious that the attempts at restoring normalcy to these birds is failing greatly, then I would recommend euthanasia as well. However, I think there is one more option here.

    Even if it becomes hard to rehabilitate to these birds, at least the ones that can live through the cleaning process could be accepted by zoos. Far from perfect, I know, but if the bird could talk it would probably prefer that to being killed.

  29. #29 Cristina
    June 7, 2010

    I’d heard this topic mentioned before, usually from the financial point of view… wether or not it was worth all the “effort” (money and people-hours) when the results were so unsure and usually dreadful. But this is the best made analysis I’ve read of the question! It sure is food for thought…
    Thanks for submitting it to the Oceanic Blog-A-Thon! (which will be up and running tomorrow)

    cheers!

  30. I’ve been here on the eruptions blog and this caught my eye as I am in the impact area (hence the name). This very subject was touched upon on the local news. I believe the rehabbed birds are being taken to south Florida. The hope is that they will stay there, although the older birds will be more inclined to try and return to their home nesting grounds.

  31. #31 AL
    June 7, 2010

    Well, I’m glad to know that there are efforts done to help these affected creatures but damage has been done and these oil companies should be responsible enough to handle contingencies like this. The birds, fishes are so helpless that they depend so much to those who are concerned about their situation. Everytime I hear and see man made disasters due to negligence, I feel very sad to know that the people concerned seldom doesn’t do anything to protect and rescue.

  32. #32 Ewa Shimasaki
    June 7, 2010

    The birds and other animals deserve another chance. It breaks my heart to think about their unnecessary suffering. I cannot bear to see their pictures without crying. Please continue the efforts to help them by cleaning them.

  33. #33 Matt M
    June 8, 2010

    I read this post with interest. In a week I am going on a vacation to the Alabama Gulf shore. Just like I have every year for the last 40, I am going down to the beach to hear the waves and feel the breeze.

    Of course, this year it is different. The beautiful white sands are stained. Walking the sands and getting in the water will mean a clean-up later on, if I don’t want to stain the car, the furniture, and the carpets with tar. The Great Blue Herons which come and check our coolers for bait will be in trouble. The fish that nibble our toes will have problems, too. We want to help the area that has given us such pleasure, and I thought of bird cleaning.

    I am looking for some assurance that cleaning a bird is not just something I am doing to make me feel better. Not just a photo opportunity for the news. I don’t want to torment a sick, scared bird, only to have it die in a few days from the fact that it is already poisoned.

    Can you tell me that cleaning birds is better for them than just ending their sad lives? I must tell you that the pictures of dead and coated birds makes me sick, and clouds my eyes with tears.

  34. Thank you for writing such an informative post on this pressing matter. I just moved from the Tampa Bay area of Florida to Coastal Georgia and I’d like to share another link with you if I may. The Suncoast Bird Sanctuary in Indian Shores, Florida is the largest wild bird hospital in the U.S., based on admissions. Their trained staff was there during the 1993 Tampa Bay oil spill, along with hundreds of volunteers.

    Their avian care staff is on standby to assist Tri-State Bird Rescue and research. They are set up to immediately triage, stabilize and administer fluids to oiled, malnourished, or injured birds. The birds will then be transported to a hazardous materials cleaning site.

    They already have over 700 volunteers on emergency call and are asking for more.

    You can donate needed supplies/money or volunteer by visiting their website @ http://www.seabirdsanctuary.com, calling them @ 727-392-4291, or emailing jessicag@seabirdsantuary.com.

    I do like what the IRBBC volunteer wrote: “With every bird we treat, we learn how to better treat the next one.”

  35. #35 "GrrlScientist"
    June 8, 2010

    matt m: the images of dead, oiled birds, marine mammals and fishes make me cry, too. this is why i wrote this piece, to learn more about these animals’ plights.

    but to answer your questions, unfortunately (and i apologize because i know this sounds trite), there are no guarantees in life. however, according to the published data i found, MOST cleaned and rehabbed birds will survive, provided they are cleaned carefully and rehabilitated by trained people. these people learn how to rehab oiled birds based on their experience trying to save birds from previous oil spills. we are getting better at saving oiled wildlife with each oil spill that occurs, and we are getting better at training the public to assist in these efforts with each catastrophic event, too. and one thing that the public seems not to know (and the media is not communicating very well) is that cleaned birds are not just dumped immediately back into the same oily mess they came from, but are kept in captivity and observed for at least a few days to make sure they are okay before they are transported to oil-free areas where they are released.

  36. #36 Matt M
    June 8, 2010

    Thank you for that assurance. I will see if I can clean a bird for you.

    I would wonder if there is any need for my help in cleaning fishes, but when I ask people look at me oddly.

  37. #37 "GrrlScientist"
    June 8, 2010

    matt m: if you do help clean a bird, please do get photos and send them to me! i’d love to post the images and have you talk about what you are doing in each picture. i know i’d be interested, and my readers would be, too.

    regarding fish .. i rather suspect that it’s impossible to clean fishes, alas! the critically endangered bluefin tuna sure could use a helping hand! (i am working on a story about them now, and will publish that soon).

  38. #38 Erin R
    June 8, 2010

    This post is eveything a science blog should be. It’s an applicable, well-researched, incredibly informative response to an all too common viewpoint. Thank you.

    darchol- As things stand right now, there is actually an excess of local volunteers in several organizations. Currently, many are asking that out of state volunteers not fly in until they are specifically requested as more people could potentially put more strain on the area. I’m still registered with the Audobon to volunteer, and the instant they need out of state volunteers I’m moving in with my gulf coast relatives to do my part. Until then, I’m donating a tenth of my admittedly small paycheck to the IBRRC.

  39. #39 Caitlin
    June 8, 2010

    Even IF the survival rates were as low as they have been stated, we should still be trying our best to save them. From an evolutionary standpoint, the ones cleaned and released that do survive are going to pass on genes that are positive to the survival of their offspring if they are to end up covered in oil one day. Who knows if it could make or break a species in the future.

  40. #40 Caitlin
    June 8, 2010

    Even IF the survival rates were as low as they have been stated, we should still be trying our best to save them. From an evolutionary standpoint, the ones cleaned and released that do survive are going to pass on genes that are positive to the survival of their offspring if they are to end up covered in oil one day. Who knows if it could make or break a species in the future.

  41. #41 eleanor
    June 9, 2010

    Many people are saying that the birds should be cleaned whatever the cost, but what if more birds could saved by devoting that time and money on other aspects of clean up and prevention? It isn’t simply whether the oiled birds can be saved at all, but also whether more birds would be saved by pursuing another course of action.
    It’s a horrible and disgusting situation.

  42. #42 janiceayra
    June 9, 2010

    oil spills cost far too much for it to happen over and over again. it’s so heartbreaking for those affected-the animals and the people who earn their living from the sea. This is also infuriating because the companies that cause this are not held accountable, enough to finally put a stop to this!

  43. #43 Jana
    June 9, 2010

    Eleanor – while I understand the point you’re making (and in fact it’s a valid point of critique of much wildlife rehabilitation) – it actually doesn’t apply here. BP is responsible for the cost of the spill, period; and that cost is such an infinitesimal portion of their yearly profits that we could force payment for every injured animal, rebuilding the coastline ecosystem, and returning the economy of the coastal region back to normal, and they wouldn’t (in reality) have to blink an eye.

    What is lacking is enforcement on the part of the government and long-term, sustained will on the part of the people. Our system of corporate accountability is disgustingly tainted.

  44. #44 True Wildlife Friend
    June 10, 2010

    To decide if killing or cleaning is the right way to smooth your consience you need to know all the facts of the bird cleaning:

    1. If a bird feels the oil in its feathering, it tries to clean it with it’s beak, in that moment the bird is already dead, because it gets poisoned and it will die very slow and very very painful!
    2. If you go near to a weak oiled bird, it is so scared, that it might have a shock and die simply because of you
    3. If you clean it than, it is already poisoned, terribly afraid, shocked and your brushes and other materials are so painful, that it can not bare it any longer. Imagine how difficult it is and hard to get the feathers clean again, how much pain it costs! So how is this poor creature dying? In such a terrible way, no human would want this for their child!
    4. If, because of an truly miracle, your bird is still alive and you put it back into the wild, what happends? The habitat is destoyed, it is so weak that it can not even go to find food and after all it is already poisoned! So it will have all this torture for nothing, just for a worse last few hours of life
    5. Not even 1% gets to the point of beeing released into the wild! NOT 1%!
    Is it fear to blame the bird for your mistakes and give him the worst end of all?

    I know what I’m talking about. I was a National Park Ranger on the North Sea in Europe and there we had also oiled birds… You might imagine what we did: Kept it die in peace

    If you really want to do something and help: Rethink you life and you habits, be more ecological thinking and, more important, ACTING, because what caused this tragedy was US, all of us and we need to change and very quick, before the next terrible thing happens!!
    I know everybody has it’s own oppinion about the situation, but try to feel like this poor bird, how would you liked to be handeled?

  45. #45 Eileen
    June 11, 2010

    It is just so sad, I can not look at the photos. I feel so sorry for the birds and wildlife in the gulf.

  46. #46 SmartDogs
    June 12, 2010

    Regarding the widespread use of dispersants, which generally consist of a surfactant and a solvent and often present toxicological problems of their own — do you know why biodegradation enhancing agents aren’t used in combination with the dispersants, or in areas of lower concentrations, instead of them?

    A lot of the agents used to enhance biodegradation are relatively inexpensive and innocuous things like manure, molasses, vegetable oils and fertilizers.

    Are these just used less often because they’re not patented and therefore less profitable than the stronger but more toxic (and more expensive) formulations?

  47. #47 Jean Bradford
    June 13, 2010

    The results of an eleven year study undertaking by the South Devon Seabird Trust in the UK has proved beyond any doubt that oiled seabirds DO survive treatment and rehabilitation. The birds in the study are auks – guillemots (murres)and razorbills. Over 1,100 were ringed upon release and subsequent post release information back from these birds indicate that in every respect they compare most favourably with non oiled birds ringed in the wild. An average of 74% of the birds admitted for treatment by the Trust are successfully released, and the number of ringing recoveries from these birds is close to that expected for non oiled sea birds. The average time to recovery is close to that for those ringed in the wild. The longest time to date being 4,596 days for a guillemot which was found alive, beached with an injured wing. May I respectfully suggest that instead of being armchair critics people roll up their sleeves and pitch in to help.

  48. #48 Elsi
    June 14, 2010

    Even the IBRRC posts on their website that Penguins have done well, but Pelicans have less than a 1% Return rate. Less than 1% could be one in 100,000. This is a reputable group. Do you know think that if they had better stats that they would report them? We need to help these poor suffering animals to pass and be at peace. Please do not put them through the hell of capturing an already dying Pelican, when the trauma of capture is mentioned by IBRRC as being enough to kill it.They are suffering in agony on the beach waiting and hoping as each second passes that the end will come quickly and peacefully and we are capturing them, putting them through hell, and prolonging their agony, when they will most likely die anyway. This is sick and sadistic I fear. This whole effort only makes us feel better, not the Pelicans. Now we are not only reponsible for covering them in oil, now we are going to work to delay their death and force them to live in utter misery. Helping them along is the least that we can do for these innocent victims. BP also had their own cleaning crew I hear, most likely with the agenda of getting all of the oiled birds off the beach so they look good, but what type of pain treatmenhts are they giving these animals?

  49. #49 "GrrlScientist"
    June 14, 2010

    elsi: using your logic, we should euthanize every human who is suffering from a terminal illness as well because making them suffer is sick and sadistic, especially since they will ultimately die anyway. this logic is not something i agree with because just as human medicine and crisis intervention improves with each individual that we treat and try to save, so does it with birds, too. if we never tried to save anyone or anything that was suffering from a seemingly incurable affliction, injury or illness, there would be no such thing as “modern medicine.”

  50. #50 Elsi
    June 15, 2010

    GrrlScientist: I would completely agree with you if these animals were receiving the pain medications and individual treatment people have. And treatment is still painful even with the best medicines. There comes a point where they will remove life support when the person is suffering needlessly in the end. Plus humans have the option to say no to treatment. The Pelicans don’t have that luxury. I think experimenting on these animals is a noble thing and I bless each and every person trying to do their best to save them. I just put myself in their place and I would not want to suffer like that. Believe me it is coming from my heart. There must be a way to capture these animals before they are covered in oil. Something I realize is that we all want the same thing…the best for the birds.

  51. #51 Jay
    June 16, 2010

    I’m an exotics veterinary technician who’s volunteered with some wildlife rehabilitation projects locally (in Virginia), and I was very skeptical when I read Gaus’s claims in another article. I wanted to see the data she’d used. Thanks VERY much for this article – it clears things up tremendously and is a fantastic rebuttal to this insanity. I just hope Obama, the EPA, whoever doesn’t act on Gaus’s spurious claims.

  52. #52 ted whitford
    June 21, 2010

    You say that it’s imperative BP pay for the damage to these birds and animals. I say bp’s resources are going to be exhausted well before this is resolved. Years. This money spent in vain, and keeping you employed, could be very well be the money needed to feed hungry children, whose parents are penniless from having their livlyhoods destroyed. Make no mistake, I hope this gets stopped and the gulf recovers, but it isn’t looking that way. This money, many millions, just may be the difference in some of these families getting relocated somewhere else in the country and starting new lives. I fear there are going to be evacuations and relocations before this is all over. The gulf will never be the same or made whole. Ever. This is just the beginning of the beginning.

  53. #53 "GrrlScientist"
    June 21, 2010

    ted: you must work for the mainstream media, which is crammed full of functional illiterates (even this piece has been misrepresented by the MSM). i dare you to find where i said it is “imperative” that BP should pay for this “spill” of theirs .. this piece presents the argument about whether to kill oiled seabirds and argues there is no scientific basis to support such a drastic measure. despite your erroneous and agenda-driven assertions, nowhere do i mention or even allude to whether BP should pay for this.

  54. #54 dmb
    July 2, 2010

    Instead of spending “$20 million to successfully release one brown pelican”, why not wring its neck for free, and spend the money on something worthwhile instead ? Like 13.5 million doses of the anti-river blindness drug Mectizan, or 2.5 million mosquito nets for malaria-afflicted countries or any of a million other useful things ?

  55. #55 Funny about Money
    July 3, 2010

    @dmb: “Something worthwhile”? Like we need a few million more humans to survive the natural consequences of overbreeding? One of the reasons we have this unholy mess is too many people and the massive consumption of resources that goes with that issue. Let’s undo the f***-up we’ve made before we work toward enlarging our population even more.

    What’s unclear to me is this: So we clean a few birds (far from the thousands that will be affected) and they do survive the process and we set them free. Then what? The entire gulf, it appears, is either now poisoned or about to be poisoned, and the toxins are expected to flow into the Atlantic. Where are these creatures going to go? What are they going to eat? How are they going to avoid being reoiled?

    While we’re talking about what BP should be paying for, maybe it should be made to build large sanctuaries for rescued wildlife, where the creatures could be sheltered for some years until the gunk clears out of their habitat. If it ever does.