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Why Save an Oiled Bird?

Why Save an Oiled Bird?Flo Tseng, director of Tufts' Wildlife Clinic, responds to the question some are asking in the wake of the spill in the Gulf.

Medford/Somerville, Mass. [08.25.10] While photos of oil-covered pelicans desperately trying to flap their wings and beached sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico may appear dire, veteran wildlife rehabilitator Flo Tseng says it's important to save these animals.

"This comes up at every big spill," says Tseng, director of the Wildlife Clinic at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine. "You get people who say, 'Should we be spending all this money on rehabilitating oiled wildlife? Shouldn't we be using this money for more long-term conservation efforts?'

"Just because people are doing the rehabilitation doesn't mean there's no money left to do other things," she says, noting that legislation Congress enacted after the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989 provides funding mechanisms both for rescuing wildlife and acquiring and restoring habitats.

Not all oiled wildlife can or will be saved, Tseng says. Rehabilitators are selective in choosing to save animals that are likely to thrive and propagate after being re-released into the wild, she says. "There's a very strict triage policy that's followed when live animals are admitted for care," she says. "We are not going to rehabilitate them unless we feel they are going to do well out there."

Birds that can get in and out of water easily, such as geese, ducks and gulls, typically do better than those that need to stay in the water, such as loons, grebes and auklets. Which kinds of birds have fared well in past spills also inform decisions about rehabilitation, Tseng says.

As of August 17, more than 4,300 birds and more than 500 sea turtles have been found dead in the Gulf. Another 1,900 oiled birds and 500 oiled sea turtles have been collected alive, according to the Deepwater Horizon Response Consolidated Fish and Wildlife Collection Report. The count doesn't include the hundreds of oiled birds left in their habitats so that they can continue to nest.

Survival rates for oiled birds vary from spill to spill, averaging between 50 and 80 percent, according to the International Bird Rescue Research Center, where Tseng previously worked as a response veterinarian. It is one of two organizations heading up bird rehabilitation efforts in the Gulf.

The Oil Pollution Act of 1990, enacted in response to the Exxon-Valdez spill in Alaska, establishes liability for oil spills and outlines who is responsible for restoring damaged natural resources. In the Gulf, that piece of federal legislation makes British Petroleum liable for the costs of the cleanup. [More details: PDF] BP and the government are working through a process known as a Natural Resource Damage Assessment (NRDA) to determine the extent of natural resource restoration in the Gulf for which the company will be responsible.

The public is often critical of the amount of money and time spent rehabilitating oiled wildlife instead of purchasing pristine habitats, says Tseng. What people don't know is that many of these animals have a good chance for survival.

"People aren't aware of post-release studies showing survival," Tseng says, "and there is money to be used to buy [additional habitat]" though the NRDA process.

Having a formal training system for rehabilitating wildlife protects both the animals and the public, whose Good Samaritan instincts may expose them to toxins and unduly stress the wildlife they are trying to save, Tseng says.

But wildlife rehabilitation can provide opportunities for properly trained local residents to participate in the cleanup. "It's one of the few places volunteers can come in and help," says Tseng. "It helps people that are impacted who have no other way of feeling like they are helping."

Tseng traveled to the Gulf Coast earlier this month to volunteer at the Hammond Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Louisiana, where nearly 500 oiled birds are being rehabilitated.

"When you're in the middle of a spill-and I will testify to this-you do not want a day off," she says. "You feel so responsible for this."

Story by Georgiana Cohen, Office of Web Communications 

Bird photo courtesy of Deepwater Horizon Response 

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