Washing oiled birds, part two

13 05 2010

Oil spreading across the waters of the Gulf of Mexico (Reuters photo)

To offer something of a counterpoint to Tuesday’s post, we offer a few resources falling more or less on the pro-oiled-bird-washing side. First, fellow blogger and Director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OCWN), Dr. Mike Ziccardi, offered his take on the issue in a post yesterday. Dr. Ziccardi correctly points out that the cost of rehabilitating oiled wildlife does not siphon funds away from other worthy endeavors like oil cleanup or habitat restoration. The money for rehabilitating oiled animals is provided expressly for that purpose by the party responsible for the spill. He also puts the money involved into perspective; wildlife rehabilitation generally consumes less than 5% of the total response costs.

The post does not address the issue of the long-term survival of washed and released wildlife, however, so your SEANET blogger went in search of additional information. Though now ten years old, a very good review article by wildlife veterinarian Dr. David Jessup speaks to the nuances of the issue. He cites numerous survival studies following washed birds to determine their long-term survival. Contrary to the statements of Dr. Gaus (see Tuesday’s post), the survival rates for seabirds are not uniformly grim, but run the gamut. Some studies on oiled African Penguins show that 90% survive to be released, and that 60% survive to breed the following year. One study on oiled Common Murres gives similar numbers, while a separate study on the same species gave the dismal survival rate of 0.7% long-term.

The conclusion Jessup gives seems a good summing up of the matter: “Oiled wildlife care may or may not return significant numbers of birds to wild populations, however there is wide variation in release and survival rates depending on species affected, the breeding or biological state of those species, the nature of the product spilled, weather and temperature, quality and immediacy of wildlife care, and other variables.” Setting aside the economic issues and considering only the humane issues of bringing seabirds into captivity and subjecting them to the stress of washing, it seems only fair to evaluate the likelihood of long-term survival on a situation by situation basis. We should neither euthanize oiled wildlife en masse with no attempt at rehabilitation, nor should we clean every oiled animal even when the signs point to poor long-term success rates.

When faced with such an environmental catastrophe, it’s in our nature to want to help. Our obligation to wildlife is to use the best science available to guide that impulse and ensure that our actions are truly in the best interest of the animals. In complex questions like these, there is, unfortunately, no single, and no easy answer.

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