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Veterinarians Lead Charge to Rescue Wildlife Caught in Gulf Coast Catastrophe

dolphinMassive rescue efforts are underway on the Gulf Coast to save marine mammals, birds and other wildlife caught up in the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Michael Ziccardi, DVM, of the UC-Davis Wildlife Health Center is directing the efforts of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network to rescue sea turtles and other marine mammals caught in the spill.

Turtles are the primary concern for now, as whales and dolphins tend to avoid the oil. However, they are also at risk if they swim through contaminated water.

Potential health risks for marine mammals include:

  • Painful chemical burns from oil on skin and mucous membranes.
  • Ingested oil or consumption of oiled prey can damage the gastrointestinal tract and interfere with digestion and absorption of nutrients from food. Metabolized oil can injure the kidneys and liver.
  • Respiratory tract damage and pneumonia from inhalation of oil fumes.

Sea turtle and marine mammal rescue centers have been established in Gulfport, Miss. and Fort Walton Beach and Panama City, Fla.

A Florida veterinarian, Dr. Norm Griggs, is leading a group of several thousand volunteers committed to rescuing birds harmed by the spill. "When I thought of the oil spill making its way here, I sounded the alarm," he said. "When sick birds start coming in, we need to be prepared."

Rehabilitation sites for birds have been established in Gulfport, Miss.; Theodore, Ala., and Pensacola, Fla.

In addition to individual rescue efforts like those being headed by Dr. Ziccardi and Dr. Griggs, BP, the oil company operating the Deepwater Horizon oil rig, contracted with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research out of Delaware to coordinate wildlife rescue efforts.

According to Ken Rice, director of wildlife operations for the Mobile sector, "This is the worst time something like this could have happened," he said, pointing out that the larval fish are in the marshlands and birds are nesting on rookery islands. "We're not just talking about birds and turtles, but their habitat and their food source."

In Louisiana, 3,000 cages used in pet rescues during hurricanes Gustav and Ike have been moved to Plaquemines Parish at the southern tip of the state to help biologists and wildlife rehabilitation specialists care for oiled birds and other mammals impacted by the disaster. Wildlife are also being treated at nearby Fort Jackson Rehabilitation Center in Buras, Louisiana.

Dr. Becker's Comments:

The images are profoundly disturbing:

… a dead pelican being removed in a large plastic bag.

… a crab thoroughly coated in petroleum.

… a young heron dying slowly on an oily slick of earth.

… pelican bird eggs stained brown, abandoned in their nests.

The Wildlife Toll is Adding up Fast

At the end of May, some 40 days after the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig accident, Reuters reported the following:

  • Oil in thick sheets and in the form of sheen and tar balls had come ashore in Louisiana wildlife reserves.
  • The bodies of nearly 500 birds, 227 turtles and over 25 marine mammals, some of them dolphins, had been collected for disposal. Officials in charge of reporting on the oil spill were careful to note that some of this wildlife died from natural causes. Not quite 30 of the dead birds were visibly oiled.
  • Sixty-six oiled birds were rescued.
  • A shark, eels and turtles were seen swimming in surface oil.
  • More bird and marine mammal casualties are expected and scientists warn of the as yet unknown consequences of the spill on marine environment and food sources.

Diving Birds Are Most Vulnerable to Date

Birds like the northern gannet and the brown pelican, just removed from the U.S. endangered species list, are currently most at risk.

These birds sustain themselves by diving into the water for fish. They're not only exposed to the contaminated water, but also to the dangers associated with consuming oiled prey.

Oil hinders the insulating properties of birds' feathers, making it difficult for them to maintain body heat. Oil coated feathers also interfere with their ability to move in the water and to fly.

Chemicals in the oil burn the birds' skin and cause eye irritation. The birds ingest oil during preening, which can damage their digestive tracts.

And while diving birds are the species most impacted thus far in the disaster, as more oil from the spill moves onto beaches and into marshlands, shorebirds, wading birds and songbirds will also be in danger.

Jay Holcomb, director of the California-based Bird Rescue Research Center, fears sea bird casualties could rise sharply from a convergence of breeding season for the birds and hurricane season in the Gulf:

"The potential for this being catastrophic is right there because there's a massive amount of oil in the water, and it's still pouring out, and there's a lot of nesting birds and a lot of birds using the coast. If the tropical storms take that oil and move it, that's when you're going to see the real impact, I think," says Holcomb.

Frank Gill, president of the National Audubon Society, sees a risk of a storm-driven surge crashing into the Gulf Coast, "leaving millions of nesting birds vulnerable to oil washing onto breeding islands, beaches, sand flats and mudflats, and seeping into wetlands, and coastal terrestrial habitats."

The outcome of the disaster in the Gulf is expected to far surpass the damage done by the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill in which an estimated 250,000 sea birds perished.

How You Can Help

From the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) homepage:

  • Volunteers are now being recruited on a state-by-state basis and updated on the Deepwater Horizon Facebook page.
  • If you would like to obtain volunteer information, please call 1-866-448-5816.
  • Two ways to track the event are to visit the Deepwater Horizon site and the OWCN blog.
  • To report an oiled animal, please call the Wildlife Hotline at 1-800-557-1401. Pertinent information on the animal, as well as your contact information, will be collected and immediately forwarded to the wildlife responders.
  • Information about what members of the public should do if they encounter oiled wildlife can be downloaded here.
  • Information about turtles and marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico and this spill can be found here; information about the effects of oil on sea turtles and marine mammals can be found here.

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