By Bonnie Berkowitz and Todd Lindeman
The Washington Post
PLAQUEMINES, LA. - As inches-deep oil washes into nesting grounds and habitats along the Gulf Coast, animal rescuers have seen a surge in gunk-covered wildlife in the past week. The solution is not a quick hosing off but a delicate process that takes days or weeks and results, ideally, in a healthy bird taking off over oil-free waters. Here is one brown pelican's trip from rescue to recovery:
A team coordinated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries netted the subject of this story, a large brown pelican, while patrolling Breton Sound on May 29. The bird was exhausted, dehydrated and coated in thick oil. It was immediately transported by climate-controlled van to the Fort Jackson Wildlife Rehabilitation Center.
This is not a photo of the specific pelican followed by this graphic. No photos of the pelican were taken before it arrived at the rehabilitation center.
As soon as it arrived, veterinarians examined it and took feather and blood samples to test for anemia and infection. They gave it a temporary tag: Brown Pelican 053, because it was the 53rd oiled bird received alive at this center. The bird got no cute nickname: "We don't name them because we really want to keep the mind-set that they are wild animals, not pets," said veterinarian Heather Nevill.
2. Oiled-bird trailer
Oiled birds cannot be washed immediately; it's too stressful. So 053 rested for two days in a temperature-controlled trailer and received IV fluids and food, plus a little Pepto-Bismol to protect its stomach lining. Ingested oil can damage animals' kidneys, livers and other organs, but Nevill said a pelican's digestive system is so efficient that it disposes of oil within about four hours.
3. Prep table
Just before they are washed, birds are sprayed with warm canola oil to loosen the muck on their feathers. Very heavily oiled birds may require an additional pre-wash. Nevill said that air sacs under the pelican's skin feel like it's covered in bubble wrap.
4. Washing tubs
Four people were required to wash 053:
Danene Birtell cleaned the head and pouch using cloths, toothbrushes and small sponges on sticks. She kept a finger in the beak to keep the bird from overheating and regularly rinsed its eyes with water to remove any soap.
Patrick Hogan washed the rest of the bird, constantly swooshing water up under the feathers to remove oil.
Shannon Griffin held 053's legs folded under its body and held its wings in or out as needed.
Harold Doucet kept tubs filled with 103-degree water and the proper concentration of Dawn dishwashing liquid (up to 10 percent). Birds often require several tubs of water.
5. Rinsing Area
Soap can interfere with the bird's feathers in the same way oil does, so thorough rinsing is vital.
6. Drying room
Newly clean, 053 was whisked off to the drying room to rest in a padded pen while floor-mounted pet-grooming dryers blew warm air. Smaller birds and wading birds are not blow-dried but sit in pens under warming lights. Holcomb's crew is now cleaning about 40 birds per day, most of them brown pelicans.
7. Pelican Island
Once dry, 053 went outside to join other recuperating pelicans in an aviary with a pool, fountain and pan of small fish for snacks. "Pelican Island" is one of five outdoor enclosures. Veterinarians took blood samples every three days to make sure the bird was well and made sure its waterproofing was returning to normal.
At 4 a.m., Nevill checked 053 one last time and gave it some fluid to keep it hydrated on its trip back to the wild. The bird received a permanent ID tag and rode for two hours in an air-conditioned van to the New Orleans airport, along with five other pelicans, four gulls and a common tern. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service veterinarian Sharon Taylor met the birds at the airport and rode with them in a Coast Guard C-144 bound for Merritt Island National Wildlife Refuge in Florida. After the four-hour flight and a 20-minute ride to the edge of an inlet, Taylor said the bird formerly known as Brown Pelican 053 waddled into Dummitt Creek, scooped up a fish and swam off next to a passing manatee.