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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.

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