- As Gulf oil spill wildlife cleanup efforts begin, experts are concerned over the projected scope of the damage.
- Volunteers must undergo hazardous waste operations training before they can work with oil-affected animals.
- The cleanup process requires at least seven steps before animals are released back into the wild.
When it comes to organizing efforts to rescue wildlife affected by oil spills like the one in the Gulf of Mexico that made landfall in Louisiana late Thursday, timing is everything. Training is essential for volunteers, who could themselves suffer health problems if they should come into contact with the oil.
"The public can't just go out and pick up oiled wildlife," Nils Warnock, field operations specialist at the California Oiled Wildlife Care Network, managed by the University of California at Davis, explained to Discovery News.
He added that an emergency phone number (866-557-1401) has been established where people can report animals affected by the oil spill. The public is encouraged to have ready the number and type of animals, the date and time they were seen, their location and any observations about the animals' behavior.
When trained professionals respond to such a report, they generally go through a seven-part rescue and treatment process.
The first step is to search for, and collect, both live and dead oiled wildlife in the area. Next, the animals are given a full physical examination. The animals are warmed, fed, hydrated and rested for a period of around 48 hours before they are washed in a series of tubs filled with a mixture of diluted cleaning agent and hot, softened water.
The cleaned animals are then placed in outdoor pools, or other appropriate housing. This "pre-release conditioning" can take anywhere from three days to several months, depending on the condition of the animal. The animals then receive another medical examination and are banded or tagged before released back into a clean habitat. The final step is a post-release assessment, which often entails tagging the animals with radio devices and monitoring them.
For smaller marine organisms, such as shellfish and fish, the rescue teams instead try to keep the oil away from them with booms that create a barrier between the slick and the animals.
Casi Callaway is executive director of Mobile Baykeeper, an Alabama-based organization recruiting volunteers now.
She told Discovery News that she's very worried about fish and turtles, since a chemical dispersant used by BP "has broken up the oil and caused it to break up and sink. Fish and other organisms then think it's food and eat it, leading to long-term problems in the ecosystem as the toxins move through the food chain."