Fort Jackson, La. Rescuers gently washing the goo from pelicans make for some of the few hopeful images from the disaster on the Gulf of Mexico, yet some scientists contend those efforts are good for little more than warming hearts.
Critics call bird-washing a wasteful exercise in feel-good futility that simply buys doomed creatures a bit more time. They say the money and man-hours would be better spent restoring wildlife habitat or saving endangered species.
In the seven weeks since oil began erupting from a mile-deep well after a drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 150 pelicans, gulls, sandwich terns and other birds have been treated at a warehouse-turned-refugee encampment 70 miles south of New Orleans.
A total of 473 birds in the Gulf region have been collected alive with visible oil; 117 oiled birds have been found dead. More are on the way, as oil slicks assault beaches and marshes that serve as breeding areas for many species.
The victims are scrubbed clean and held a week or more to recover. Then a Coast Guard plane flies them to Tampa Bay in Florida for release — far enough away, workers hope, that the birds won’t return to oiled waters and get soaked again. Birds treated from this disaster have been tagged, and none has been spotted in oil again.
It’s all part of a broader animal care initiative overseen by federal agencies and operated largely by nonprofit groups, with funding from BP PLC. Other centers focus on turtles and marine mammals.
“All of us here taking care of the wildlife feel it’s important,” said Rhonda Murgatroyd of Wildlife Response Services in Houma, La. “We can’t just leave them there — somebody has to take care of them.”
A noble sentiment, said Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University. But the hard reality is that many, if not most, oiled creatures probably won’t live long after being cleansed and freed, he said.
“Once they’ve gone through that much stress, particularly with all the human handling and confinement, it’s very difficult,” Kendall said. “Some species might tolerate it better than others, but when you compare the benefits to the costs ... I am skeptical.”