People have now recovered nearly 500 oiled-but-alive birds from the Gulf region. Many of these are the brown pelicans, which—adding insult to tragedy—is Louisiana's state bird. They have become grimy symbols of BP's catastrophe, and responders are racing to save the birds and clean them. But increasingly, the disheartening but necessary question has arisen: Should we euthanize them instead of trying to save them? YES Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University, told the AP that it might be hard to stomach the thought, but trying to save the brown pelicans and other oily birds could be futile. To help the birds, responders must capture them, hold them in captivity, go through the exhaustive process of cleaning them, and set them free somewhere where they won't fly back to the oil. In the case of BP's leak, oil has spread so far that rescuers are currently taking Louisiana birds all the way to Tampa Bay, Florida. Kendall, for one, is skeptical that our efforts do much good, and the data aren't encouraging.
The arm of the federal government that nominally oversees offshore rigs agrees with Kendall, and has for some time. "Studies are indicating that rescue and cleaning of oiled birds makes no effective contribution to conservation, except conceivably for species with a small world population," the U.S. Minerals Management Service said in a 2002 environmental analysis of proposed Gulf oil drilling projects. "A growing number of studies indicate that current rehabilitation techniques are not effective in returning healthy birds to the wild" [AP].
UC-Davis Ornithologist Daniel Anderson points out that we can't really address damage oil has done to internal organs, either, which is part of the reason the numbers show no significant survival rates for the hard-to-save animals over the long term. He says:
“It might make us feel better to clean them up and send them back out. But there’s a real question of how much it actually does for the birds, aside from prolong their suffering” [Newsweek].
NO But, Anderson counters, maybe we just owe it to them.
"If nothing else, we're morally obligated to save birds that seem to be savable," Anderson said [AP].
And methods seem to be improving, at least slightly, as responders sadly get more practice.
In the past, birds were cleaned right away, and volunteers often worked through the night bathing rescued birds. But, as research has since shown, the stress of capture and cleaning can be profoundly deleterious to a bird’s health—knocking hormones out of balance and exacerbating organ damage. So now, captured birds are left to rest for a day or two before being cleaned, and only washed during the day, so as not to disrupt their circadian rhythms [Newsweek].
Part of the argument for euthanizing could be that time would be better spent on saving habitats or endangered species as opposed to cleaning doomed birds. But, as Anderson points out, citizens demand it and will try to do it themselves if organized responders don't. If you care about birds, or devoted your life to them, how could you not?
"What do you want us to do? Let them die?" said Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, who has aided oiled animals for 40 years [AP].
Recent posts on the Gulf oil spill: 80beats: Meet the Oil-Covered Pelicans, Symbols of the BP Oil Spill
Image: flickr / IBRRC