For Oiled Wildlife, Dawn Cleans Best

Trial and error through the years has shown that the dish detergent cleans oil off feathers and fur without irritating the skin.


Gulf spill animal rescue specialists prefer hand-washing oiled wildlife over using "bird washing machines."

Years of trial and error determined that Dawn dishwashing detergent is the preferred cleanser.

So far, 2,000 bottles of Dawn have been shipped to Gulf cleanup effort sites.

When it comes to cleaning oil-affected wildlife, nothing beats Dawn dishwashing detergent.

It may sound like an ad jingle, but experience has shown that the soap is better and safer than other methods, such as using stronger cleansers or "bird washing machines," according to animal rescue specialists who are involved in the Gulf spill recovery effort.

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Machines that wash oiled animals have been available for at least a decade. Manufacturers claim they cut clean-up time by half, reducing a 35 to 45-minute manual washing to just 20 minutes. The speed, however, may come at a cost.

Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC), told Discovery News that his network of specialists will not use such a machine "as it does not truly clean the birds all the way and is sometimes hurtful to them."

While working after the Erika oil spill in France, his specialists initially used a machine, with disastrous results.

"Each time, the birds' wings were injured and the birds died," he said. "Our biggest concern is that it does not take into consideration the individual needs of each bird. Animals cannot be cleaned like apples. They come in different shapes and sizes, even within species, and therefore require individual care and cleaning." 

Instead, the preferred method for the past three decades has been to clean birds and many other oiled animals with Dawn dishwashing detergent. Deciding on this particular technique and cleanser required substantial time and experimentation, according to Holcomb.  

He said that in the 50's and 60's, "different substances were applied to the feathers of oiled birds, some of which were: mascara remover, butter, lard, powdered chalk, waterless hand cleaner, acetone, detergent and various oils." None worked very well, which led to one not-so-bright idea in the early 70's. At that time, oiled birds were covered with warmed mineral oil and then corn meal, thought to absorb the oils.

"That was not what happened," Holcomb said. "The end result of this process was a bird resembling a giant corn dog!" 

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