Frustration and Politics Hurting Wildlife Rescue Effort

     On June 3 photographer Charlie Reidel published photos he’d taken of oiled birds caught in a thick layer of crude coming ashore on East Grand Terre Island. While these were not the first images of oiled birds to be seen publicly,

Oiled Birds found in Barataria Bay on the west side of the Mississippi Delta 23 May 2010

they were the first to garner widespread attention, primarily due to the intensely intimate nature of the photographs, and partly to the somewhat ironic timing – coming on the heels of reports that BP was attempting to prevent such images from being publicized.

Wildlife Rescue Workers Frustrated
    Throughout the first six weeks of the response,  there had been “back-channel” allegations from wildlife rescue workers in the field that BP and the Unified Command were hampering their efforts.  The wildlife response is owned by BP.  As mandated by the Oil Pollution Act of 1990, BP is required to rehabilitate and restore natural resources damaged by their spill. Texas-based Wildlife Response Services, LLC (WRS), contracted by the oil giant though O’Brien’s (a private company on retainer to BP) to oversee the rescue and rehabilitation effort in this catastrophe. Rhonda Murgatroyd, the director of WRS, brought in veteran spill response organization, Tri-State Bird Rescue of Delaware – Tri-State, in turn, brought in International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) from California.
     Rescue workers, speaking anonymously due to fears that public complaints would cause further problems, claimed that the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has been preventing them from using proven techniques to capture oiled birds, restricting the hours spent in the field, and performing most search and collection in non-oiled areas. 
     One member of the response team maintained that USFWS threatened to fire IBRRC for “stepping out of line,” which included,  “questioning protocols, strategies, daily plans, taking photos, [and] talking to press.”
     “I feel like calling Obama,” said another staff member who felt at a loss for a remedy.
     With a great frustration setting in, this long-running, slow-motion disaster seemed to be taking a  toll on the responders. “We’ve had to sit back and observe oiled birds not being captured for a month.”
     On top of the political realities of the field, questions about the value of rescue and rehabilitation of oiled birds began to be raised in the press.

Oiled Wildlife Care Called Into Question
     Spiegel Online, May 6, had featured a story, Expert Recommends Killing Oil-Soaked Birds. Relying on the statements of Silvia Gaus, a biologist with Wadden Sea National Park on Germany’s North Sea coast, the article maintained that rehabilitated oiled birds die soon after release and that the effort to rescue them is not only cruel but a waste of resources. It wasn’t until June 1, though, that this question began to be raised in the US press. By June 3, when Reidel’s  heart-wrenching photographs appeared, the story was being re-written and carried in most news outlets across North America, from Fox News to National Geographic. Using ‘silvia gaus biologist‘ as the search terms yields pages of links suggesting that washing oiled birds does not help them.
     While many of the commentators looked at purported low survival rates of the rehabilitated animals, some arguments against rehabilitating oiled wildlife seemed to come from the mounting anger at BP.
     Sociologist Dr. Lisa Wade asked in her article, “if cleaning birds is unlikely to save them, and euthanizing them ultimately more humane, why are we cleaning birds? The obvious answer is that it is good for BP’s public relations.”
     While it is arguably so that BP reaps good PR from oiled animal rescue, the perspective of the rescue worker, that is, the veterinarians, biologists and rehabilitators who have devoted their lives to improving the care available for oiled wildlife, was notably absent from media coverage of Ms. Gaus’ claims.
     Dr. Michael Ziccardi, director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) in California, who is currently leading the oiled mammal and turtle response unit out of Houma, LA, responded to the media criticism in the daily blog he has maintained throughout the Deepwater Horizon Response.  Citing scientific literature from the last 15 years, Ziccardi concludes

…the increasingly successful release rate of rehabilitated oiled seabirds… through the past decades offers strong scientific data showing that, with proper facilities, equipment, and trained personnel successful rehabilitation of oiled wildlife can be achieved and we can get better at it Obviously, prevention of oil spills will be the best solution to the resulting rehabilitation dilemma… In the meantime however, when spills happen, past studies show that real conservation success can be achieved through rehabilitating oiled birds and other wildlife.

     Jay Holcomb, director of IBRRC, also issued a statement regarding the care of oiled wildlife, citing many of the same studies as Ziccardi. Holcomb noted especially the lack of involvement biologists such as Gaus have with the oiled wildlife care research community:

IBRRC and Tri-State Bird Rescue host a bi-annual conference on the Effects of Oil on Wildlife, and, as such, are well versed in the latest science. The “experts” that I am referring to rarely, if ever, attend this global forum for oiled wildlife professionals, nor do they attempt to learn about advancements and successes in oiled wildlife rehabilitation.

     While the devotion, skill and experience of the staff of these two response organizations is well-documented, and highly acknowledged, the charge that the oil industry, in this case BP, reaps benefits from this high-profile activity can’t be so easily dismissed. In fact this charge has dogged IBRRC over the length of its nearly 40 year history.
     In an article on the response to the American Trader spill off of Huntington Beach, California, in the December 1990 Orange Coast Magazine, author Thomas Dixon notes that BP America (the responsible party for that spill as well) had donated $75,000 to IBRRC the previous year. Dixon also noted that, “[a] curious relationship exists between the State, the IBRRC, and a company such as BP,” finding an appearance of a conflict of interest.
     Of the response to the present catastrophe, The New York Times on May 20 raised the same question regarding BP and its contractors. While many of the Times’ sources are skeptical of BP, citing what they see as the company’s recent and blatant misrepresentations, Douglas Zimmer, a spokesman for the USFWS, was reported to have said that the agency didn’t have the staff to handle the oil-impacted wildlife, and that BP was in a better position to hire workers quickly.  “I also just don’t believe that BP or their contractor would have any incentive to skew the data,” quotes the Times, “Even if they did, there are too many federal, state and local eyes keeping watch on them.”
     Of course, any responsible party is penalized monetarily for damages to natural resources, so the potential of those with legal liability to downplay those damages cannot be overlooked.
     In the current system, wildlife response organizations may be in a predicament they did not create. Forced to tailor rescue and rehabilitation efforts to the needs of the responsible party, groups such as IBRRC and others, are in the strange position of having to emphasize the “service” they provide to the polluter, rather than the victims. One response organization with ties to IBRRC, Focus Wildlife,  asserts on its website under the content heading Reputation Management,

A proactive and visible program of oiled wildlife preparedness, planning and response by experienced professionals is necessary to ensure positive and reputation-building exposure for the client, in terms of environmental stewardship and responsibility to the community and environment it operates within.  It is a mechanism of corporate responsibility to the community it serves that is rapidly becoming expected by the general public.

Professional wildlife preparedness and response helps to neutralize the intense media pressure on high-profile wildlife impacts. A comprehensive media management plan that fulfills the public’s desire for information directly pertaining to the wildlife response quickly and effectively quells the concern over the wildlife resources.  As such, oiled wildlife response can be utilized as a highly effective tool for reputation management to help counteract the intense scrutiny surrounding oil spills and/or wildlife contamination issues.

     With BP’s (and all Industry‘s) track record of safety violations that have lead to fatal accidents and environmental calamity, the bold lies of its top executives, as well as what appears to be criminal negligence, perhaps the wildlife rehabilitation effort would be better served if it were independent from Industry. While some might argue that the current arrangement, in which the responsible party hires  wildlife responders, is merely an application of the so-called Pottery Barn Rule, what is, perhaps intentionally, sanctioned is the idea that the polluter owns the response, rather than the damage. Paying for expertise in the rehabilitation and restoration of damaged natural resources shouldn’t be confused with employing, or owning that expertise.
      Whether or not BP, or any responsible party, reaps benefits from highly publicized animal rescue efforts is not clear. What is clear is that BP was not happy about Reidel’s photographs receiving widespread attention. Rescue workers felt the sting. The day after the photos were published one responder commented, “They don’t want any more photos going out… my team mates are on lock down, can’t have volunteers or anything on board!”
     Difficulties such as these would soon lead to IBRRC, in Louisiana, leaving the search and rescue effort to USFWS and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF). IBRRC field staff were re-deployed in Mississippi, Alabama, and Florida.

All Hands on Deck
     While the first oiled bird to be captured and rehabilitated, a Northern Gannet, may have been the most photographed bird ever to get a bath, the birds captured at East Grande Terre Island were barely seen in the press. A photograph of a group of oiled pelicans standing in a plywood box was repeatedly published, with few details of their care made known.
      In the absence of quality information regarding the wildlife branch, Sandra Barbier, a retired journalist in Southeastern Louisiana attended a meeting BP and Unified Command held with the community of Belle Chasse, LA on June 8, where she questioned the sufficiency of the amount of resources, facilities and personnel, that are currently deployed on behalf of wildlife. What follows are extracts from the report she filed:

     “Regarding why there is only one bird rehabilitation site in Louisiana and none at Grand Isle at the mouth of the Barataria estuary, I was told by [Rhonda Murgatroyd]… the director of bird rehabilitation, that plans are to relocate the bird rehab center in Fort Jackson to the state wildlife and fisheries complex at Grand Isle … Presently there is a “triage” site at Grand Isle and after the relocation, plans are to downgrade Fort Jackson to a triage operation. 
     “[T]here are discussions about eventually moving the rehab operation out of the hurricane zone, possibly closer to Baton Rouge, to avoid having to evacuate recovering birds in advance of a hurricane. [Murgatroyd] said moving birds in an evacuation would be dangerously stressful to them. I failed to ask what would be the impact of routinely moving “triaged” birds that distance, and how they would be transported.
     “I was disturbed when Ms. Murgatroyd said a proposal to increase the number of Tri-State responders was quashed by locals in favor of employing local people. I’d like to say that I hope this attitude changes as this crisis and the need for help continue. I debated publicizing this rare inside look at operations, since it is likely that BP, if it takes any notice of my blog, will further restrain information being released to the public about the spill, but I feel strongly that BP’s censorship needs to stop.
      “I also talked to LDFW, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and Coast Guard representatives about wildlife rescue efforts and cleanup around the nesting colonies. When I asked why wildlife agency officers from other states aren’t helping capture oiled birds, since that activity seems to demand a trained professional, a LDWF representative assured me there are adequate numbers of rescuers for now and that out-of-state helpers are ready and waiting for when they are needed.
      “Regarding cleanup of oil around islands with nesting birds, …a Coast Guard representative who had worked at Cat Island all day the day before… said the dilemma was figuring a way to pick up such a small quantity of oil as was occurring at the time at Cat Island. He described small skimmers that can be placed on john boats, but he said skimmers are harder to get because of competition from other Gulf states.

     A USFWS biologist on standby to be deployed, in early June noted with alarm that for the entire impacted area there were only 80 USFWS biologists mobilized. “I mean this isn’t just an ecosystem, this is a whole landscape,” he said,”80 is nothing.”
    It is also noteworthy that many oiled wildlife response professionals, in California and elsewhere, are idle, waiting to be called, and receiving little or no information on when that might happen, if at all. One seasoned responder said he was going to do some work on his house while he waited. Another responder ‘on standby’ said, “I guess when they say ‘all hands on deck’, they don’t mean mine.” 
     While some individual responders are unwilling to publicly criticize the response for fear of political backlash, Sharon Schmalz, director of Houston-based Wildlife Rehabilitation and Education (WR&E) complained to the Houston Chronicle that her organization’s offer to help was declined by BP.  “We are just kind of amazed that they don’t need help,” Schmalz told the Chronicle. The Chronicle reports that WR&E has responded to more than 60 spills over the last 25 years. UPDATE 6/23: Sharon Schmalz points out that, WR&E has been and is currently part of BP’s wildlife response plan. Ms. Schmalz does not know why her organization has not been activated.
     Many outside observers, including Jamie Rappaport Clark, director of the USFWS from 1997 to 2001 and now executive vice president of Defenders of Wildlife, have expressed concern that not enough resources are put toward the wildlife effort. For the online news source, Clark stated, “This cleanup operation is already taxed, and I think it’s going to get worse. Many animals are going to die that are going to go uncounted and unseen. [USFWS staff] are working really hard in the most extreme conditions, but it’s absolutely staggering how overwhelming the problem is.”
     In the same news account, Wayne Pacelle, president of The Humane Society, is quoted, “There are thousands of people in the country who have the know-how right now to assist with these efforts, and they want to help. The only thing that’s inhibiting it is a bureaucratic incident command structure that does not allow the integration of these people.”

     Meanwhile, further accusations that BP’s commitment to oiled wildlife rescue is a public relations sham and not a real concern surfaced on social networking sites, and other web-based venues, some alleging that BP is actively interfering with rescue attempts. 

Boat captain in Venice, La. says BP preventing rescue of sea turtles, burning stricken animals along with crude in controlled fires. 

In the interest of full disclosure, the author of this post, Monte Merrick, offers the following statement:

As a wildlife rehabilitator, specialized in aquatic bird care, I have worked on many oil spills and other industrial calamities, during the nearly eight years I was on the IBRRC response team. I strongly support the work of wildlife rehabilitation and operate from the conviction that individual lives matter. I have worked with each of the wildlife organizations mentioned in the above article and count many of the individuals currently working on the BP oil catastrophe as friends. If I were able to be there working with them, I would be, in which case,  I would not be writing about these issues at all. I would be caring for oiled birds and keeping my mouth shut. 

A clarification:  Wildlife Response Services (WRS) was hired by O’brien’s, a company which is managing aspects of BP’s response to this catastrophe. Bird Ally X has no information to suggest that WRS is “on retainer” with BP, as originally reported in this article. 


One thought on “Frustration and Politics Hurting Wildlife Rescue Effort

  1. Monte, A thousand thanks for bringing this information to light. People need to know this is happening. I really must disagree with you where you say that people will think BP is doing good work by "rehabilitating" the wildlife. It's just the opposite from where I sit. Those pictures of the oiled birds on Queen Bess Island haunt me and cause me to wish the worst upon the decision makers at BP and I know I'm not alone.Thanks again.

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