Heavily oiled birds and response “blame game”

With more oiled birds coming into Gulf Oiled Wildlife Centers each day, Executive Director, Jay Holcomb, takes time to update and explain the spill response from IBRRC’s perspective:

As you can see we have had a significant spike in the number of birds that we are receiving in the Ft. Jackson center here in Louisiana. (See: Updated bird numbers) This is because a section of the oil slick has come to shore near Grand Isle and birds living in that area are now being impacted. Many of the birds that you have seen on the news are birds that are currently here at the center. I know that it is heartbreaking to see these pictures, but they are an accurate and true depiction of what is going on here. Nothing is worse than an innocent animal covered in oil helplessly struggling to survive. Heavily oiled birds always become the symbol of any oil spill when images are taken and that is appropriate as they clearly show what can happen in a massive spill.

We have been busy here working with the birds and putting in long hours so I do not always get the time to write on the blog but there are a few things I wanted to share with our readers.

First, the pelicans that are here are in good health but very heavily oiled. I tell the media that they look like they are fondued – more or less dipped in the oil. That is because the fish they eat often swim and hide below floating surface oil and when the pelicans plunge into the water to catch them, they become oiled. A few of our field teams have witnessed this and actually seen fish jumping onto the oil and then watch as a gull or pelican goes after it and then becomes oiled. The ocean here is teaming with fish so it stands to reason that this would happen. The things that are working in our favor are that these are healthy and strong birds and the oil is aged enough so that it does not have much smell to it or volatile aromatics. That is the better part of this but what is a problem for the birds and us is that the oil is very gooey and thick. It is taking about 45 minutes to an hour to wash each bird as we have to pre-treat the birds with a warmer light oil to loosen the crude oil up and then wash the bird using DAWN dishwashing liquid. Lots of it! We are getting it off but it takes some scrubbing.

Another thing in the birds favor is that it is very warm this time of year and the birds are able to survive longer than birds in colder climates. This is in the birds favor but is debilitating for the people working on the birds. We have to shift our people and it’s a difficult situation for us in that respect. The other birds such as gulls and herons have a more difficult time with being this oiled. A few have died so far but many are making it also. They require a lot of supportive care.

I also want to mention the great people that are here helping to care for the birds. There are the response team members of Tri-state Bird Rescue Research Inc. and our team from IBRRC but also many individuals that are part of the Louisiana State Animal Rescue Team (LSART). The LSART helps us by bringing in people from all backgrounds including wildlife rehabilitators and veterinarians that are all based in Louisiana. They are making up a large part of the work force and are really great. I need to mention that it is very important to give these people the opportunity to contribute first to helping offset the impact of the spill by helping us. They survived Hurricane Katrina and are now dealing with this situation. So, in that sense it’s appropriate that we use local resources first to fill in the ranks of our expanded rehab teams. As I have mentioned before, there are literally thousands of people who have been wait-listed who want to help. They will be called in as needed but so far they are not. It’s as simple as that.

I also feel the need to mention the “blame game” that I am not a stranger to. As you may have seen, I play a few key roles here at the Ft. Jackson Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center. First, I provide oversight for the rehabilitation program as I have had many years of experience in managing large scale oiled wildlife rehabilitation efforts and can use that experience to our advantage. Secondly, I took on the role of External Affairs person because I knew that this would be an explosive and political situation when I first heard of this incident and therefore I felt that I was best suited to act as the voice for our efforts to rehabilitate these birds. So, I manage the intense media attention that has been put on the rehabilitation program. I like the media and I can speak to them from a historical perspective, a wildlife rehabilitation perspective and from a place of transparency as I agree that the world needs to see what is happening in this situation here in the gulf.

We have been allowing the media into the center every day from 1 to 2pm, usually longer, in the afternoon to do interviews, see the birds and get the stories. Now that we are getting very busy we are changing that to 3 times a week, Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 1 to 3pm just so we can focus on the birds as giving the media their fair time takes a lot of attention away from our work. I request that everyone understand that this has been put into place for the sake of the animals and respect our new schedule.

Lets talk about the blame game real quick before I hit the sack. One of the questions I get every day from reporters is, “How does this spill compare to the Exxon Valdez oil spill?” well, there are many similarities and differences. Most notably the environment, weather and species impacted are vastly different but what is similar are the politics. This a big spill with a large oil company, a lot of scrutiny and a lot of people blaming each other. That is what it is but it was just a matter of time until the wildlife rehabilitators got blamed also. I knew this going into it. IBRRC and Tri-State are contracted by BP to manage the rehabilitation of the birds that are oiled in this spill so some think that we have signed over our rights as independent organizations. Nothing is farther from the truth. We have worked with the oil industry or whoever is the responsible party since 1971 to provide our unique, proven and qualified services of rehabilitating oiled birds and other wildlife. Collectively our organizations have responded to about 400 oil spills ranging from tens of thousands of birds to just a few and may I humbly state that we are the most qualified groups in the world to manage a program such as this one. We work very well together and become one large team in large-scale events such as this oil spill.

Our amazing founder, Alice Berkner, always said to me that the reason that she got involved in this work was because she felt somewhat responsible as a credit card holder of the company who was responsible for the spill in 1971 that initiate the founding of IBRRC. (See: Founders Perspective) I have always felt that way also. Her bottom line was that we all use oil products but are quick to pass the buck when oil is spilled and that seemed irresponsible. She was transparent in her initial approach to the petroleum industry. Alice wanted to help the birds with protocols based in sound science and manage oiled wildlife rehab programs with proven crisis management systems, so she created IBRRC to do just that. Instead of attacking the oil industry for the spills, which everyone else was doing, she gave them a solution and that was to use IBRRC to help offset some of the damage that oil spills do to the environment as no one was doing that back then. That began a steep learning curve that is still going on today and we have managed to improve the care we give to the birds immensely over the years.

So, here we are, almost 40 years on with a lot of experience and expertise under our belts and something we can offer to once again help in the clean up of the spill by helping these animals that really are our collective responsibility to care for. They belong to us, they are precious and they need our help. Here in Louisiana we are caring for them as best we know how right now in 2010. We will be blamed for our association with the oil industry, accused of selling out etc. We already have been. It’s nothing new to us. So, for the blamers out there please keep in mind that as you drive your car or are reading this on your computer that your life was made a hell of a lot easier because of oil and we all have benefited greatly from it. So who is to blame? No one! BP is accountable for their accident here in the gulf and they are being held accountable, as they should be. But we the people are also accountable as consumers of the products the petroleum industry provides us and maybe the silver lining in this horrific and catastrophic event is that people will wake up and ask themselves this question. “Is the cost of exploring for, using and transporting fossil fuels and their byproducts worth the risk?” Look at that iconic picture of the gull covered in oil from this spill. If you can live with that, drive your car, discard your plastic water bottles and tell your kids that it is all OK then go for it. If not then change the future through taking some level of responsibility about what has happened, use your brain, your intent and your desire to change the future of how we fuel our world. Stop blaming everyone for what you had a hand in creating. No one is right or wrong here. We are all in this together. It’s just about the choices we make, individually and collectively, and maybe its time to evaluate those choices. Everything is an opportunity and maybe that is the opportunity that this spill is providing for us.– a chance to reevaluate how we move into the future and protect our earth while enjoying our lives. Think about it.

Its 4 am and I am going to get a tiny bit of shut eye.

Later! – Jay, from Fort Jackson, Louisiana

International Bird Rescue is working with the main responder, Tri-State Bird Rescue of Delaware. IBRRC more than 20 response team members on the ground including veterinarians, wildlife rehabilitation managers and facilities and capture specialists.

The oil spill involves a ruptured drilling platform approximately 50 miles off the Louisiana coast. The drilling rig, the Deepwater Horizon, exploded on April 20, 2010 and sank in 5,000 feet of water. More than 100 workers scrambled off the burning rig in lifeboats. 11 workers died.

At least 40 million gallons of crude has been dumped into the Gulf of Mexico and harmed fragile breeding grounds for Brown Pelicans and other shorebirds. Six weeks after the blow out, BP has yet to significantly stem the flow in the nation’s worst oil disaster.

13 thoughts on “Heavily oiled birds and response “blame game””

  1. Mr. Holcomb, I can't believe that there are people out there who are laying blame on IBRRC and other rehab centers for "selling out" to oil companies. This blog entry says everything perfectly, and we are all so grateful that the birds, turtles, etc have you and your staff down in the gulf. Most of us can't fly down and help you, but know that our prayers are with you and that you are the angels for these animals. Thank you!

  2. Well said! Jay you are doing a great job, I really wish I could come down there evereyday! I think those of us in Louisiana are greatful that you are letting the Vets, Vet Students and Wildlife Rehabbers with LSART help.

    I think people should know that if they want to help, one of the best ways would be to donate to IBRRC or Tri-State Bird Rescue. That money doesn't go to pay for this oil spill, that money keeps organizations like IBRCC and Tri-State going and training people for these disasters. So everyone reading this, if you want to help, donate to these two great groups!

    When I go and volunteer at Fort Jackon, I see a great team of people, all focused on the affected birds. People work to the point of exhaustion and beyond, all for one purpose, to help the birds!!!!

    Thank You to all of the Volunteers and to Tri-State and IBRRC! The people of Louisiana Thank You and we need you!

  3. Jay,

    Great post! Thanks to you and your team for all the hard work. I do hope this is a wake-up call for all of us.

    Philadelphia, PA

  4. Here, here! I agree with you 100%, Jay. Thank you for your dedication to the animals.

    Take good care of yourself during this too!


  5. You are doing a much appreciated duty, you will be blessed for caring for our oiled wildlife. However, you can get off your soapbox, when directing blame to the American who puts gas in their car and drinks from a plastic bottle. For thirty years we have been talking about cleaner energy. So blame big industry, lobbyists, and the government that sits on their hands. Educate not blame the ignorant American.

  6. Jay,
    Thank you for explaining in your blog the whole situation. I have asked my family to donate to IBBRRC as my Fathers' Day gift.
    Graham Bowkett.

  7. I am so inspired by this article. Jay is obviously very passionate about helping these birds, as are all of the wonderful people he is working with. Some of the things I've read over the past few days make me sick. I read about the biologist who believes the birds should be left to die. Every time I see or hear something like this I think of the gull I saw on the news that was up to its neck in sludge and was struggling to keep its head from sinking. How dare anyone say that these animals are not worthy of rescue? We caused this, every one of us. We cannot stand by and watch these animals suffer. Every life is worth saving. Every life.

    I sincerely hope the media continues to cover the work the IBRRC is doing, and I also hope they continue to show the heartbreaking images of suffering that none of us wants to see. We all need to remember this catastrophe and do our part to ensure it doesn't happen in the future.

    I'm so very thankful we have organizations like the IBRRC who care so much.

  8. Jay,

    Thanks so much for keeping us abreast of the reality of the situation as it affects wildlife and in particularly the birds in the Gulf. The images I have seen, mostly on the web as I have little time for biased news and most TV, are absolutely disheartening. I agree that you have stated correctly that we ALL are to blame for this accident, though BP bears real responsibility. There is more here to do with financial skimping it appears, but that is something our leaders hopefully will adjust. Each of us needs to reflect how we use energy, and just how companies like BP are merely doing the thing they do best… providing fuel for a gas-hungry nation that loves its autos and other recreational vehicles. They have the demand because we created it, and their wealth is from our demand.

    I have loved birds for years, and as a Whooping crane fan (or craniac, as they are called) I had a website still up and devoted to the work of the groups that raise, train and fly with the young Whoopers, bringing them each year from Wisconsin to Florida. This year their migration may well be affected by the oil now reaching our Gulf shores, as St. Mark's and also Chassahowitzka are right on the Gulf. One can hope this won't do much damage, but reality is that it likely will. How it will affect these birds is unknown.

    The brown pelican will hopefully be placed back on the endangered list, so BP can really receive a retroactive wallop for the losses experienced so far. I somehow doubt congress will enact this, but I pray they do. Seeing these beautiful, gawky creatures wallowing in thick sludgy oil is not something most people want to watch. But it is how things are, and one always hopes one of your team was beside the photographer ready to get that bird right after the shutter closed. I read that most of the living birds you folks have recovered are still alive, and will be rehabbed and released. I hope to see this soon on Florida's East Coast when it happens again.

    I wish I could be up there to do something as a writer and photographer, and behind the scenes organizer, facilitator. I am not a trained animal handler, so I have no illusions about doing that, but it would be a great thing to do! However, getting materials, making calls, bringing supplies and doing such are tasks I would know I can handle. Also, I produce podcasts for the Endangered Species Coalition, and maybe we can talk very soon with you as a guest?

    God bless you and your team. There are few bright spots in all this Gulf oil mess, but seeing these birds fly free and knowing what their fate would have been without qualified care and concern is certainly one!

    Mark Chenoweth
    Kissimmee, FL

  9. Mr. Holcomb: Thank you so much for your "blame game" blog. I read it on the International Bird Rescue Center that I receive on my Facebook page. I shared it on my page with the last paragraph about all of us sharing in the "blame." I believe our nation is at a crossroads with regards to how we are going to continue with our ever-increasing energy hunger. Our own family is looking for ways to be "greener" in our day-to-day lives.
    Thank you for all your work…I see you have been recognized by Oceana as a "Ocean Hero." I wish we could come and help with the cleaning of the wildlife…though I realize that it takes much training and you need people who are skilled in wildlife rehabilitation. Some day soon that will be my daughter. While only 15 right now, her career aspiration is to be a wildlife rescuer/veterinarian, and she is just determined enough to see that through. She sees what is going on now and wishes she were there now, for she would be certain to be there helping.
    Fight the good fight!

  10. I would never blame you guys! Thank you all envolved in the rescue effortand for your commitment to save as many affected birds as possible. We need more organizations just like you. All of you are true heroes indead! God bless you and may you all find the strength to continue your efforts as the situation will worsens over the coming weeks and months.

  11. I agree wholeheartedly. We, as in collectively, WE are all responsible for this disaster that has affected wildlife and humans who reside and make their living in the Gulf Coast area. What is ironic, is that humans, unlike the helpless and defenseless wildlife, have choices to better our world. Ironically, technology is available, to solar or wind power our homes, to drive hybrid or electric cars that can be charged on renewable energy, all which would reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, which in its raw form is pure poison. We also have the power to regulate industry (as much as "free marketers" are against it) to establish fail-safe systems, so that when disasters do happen, a company can truly say with confidence and a clear conscience, that they did everything possible to prevent catastrophe.

    The technology is there. We can hold our elected representatives and leaders accountable to create a better world, rather than to destroy the one we have. What are we waiting for?

    Phoenix, AZ

  12. Firstly, I would like to congratulate you Jay on your award for being winner of the 2010 "Ocean Heroes Award" by Oceana, an honor you absolutely deserve. For you to find the time to write everyone and keep everyone posted on the efforts of the IBRRC is just heroic in itself.

    I'm just incredibly touched at the incredible efforts by the IBRRC and it's people/groups/affiliates, who are working tirelessly to save these animals, my heart just goes out to every single person working/volunteering/staying up all night/being without their families.

    This is just an incredible tragedy, and to think that there are groups of people that would with any kind of decency point a finger at the IBRRC as to blame is just disgusting to me. But you've tactfully handled that criticism with poise.

    I commend you for keeping us posted. I am going to be sharing this link with everyone I know. My donation will soon follow as my husband and I have worked hard the past two years to be more environmentally conscious with resources we use. Every little bit helps.

    Keep going! You are an amazing person!

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