Tugging on Heartstrings and Feathers: An Up-Close Look at a Wildlife Rehab Center in the Gulf

8 years ago

Heading to the Deep South earlier this month, I braced for an up-close look at the Gulf Oil spill. On the day I arrived, July 2, South Mississippi's excellent Sun-Herald screamed: "OIL ENTERING GULF'S FOOD CHAIN." This was going to be tough.

My family lives in Ocean Springs, Mississippi, the first outpost in French Louisiana (founded in 1699) and headquarters for the Red Cross during Hurricane Katrina. Their home sits on the edge of Fort Bayou, where my nephew catches fish off the family pier and my brother sets crab traps. With oil booms floating nearby, the oil spill is quite real.

A normal summer would involve numerous boat trips out to nearby barrier islands -- Horn, Cat and Ship. But not this year as boat traffic to these spots has been banned in light of the spill. Nevertheless, we managed to make time for inner-tubing, knee-boarding and trips-by-boat to The Shed, possibly the best BBQ and blues joint in "this'n here U-nited States." (I especially love their marquee board, acquired from Trent Lott Middle School.)

The oil hasn't made its way to back bays, rivers and inlets, so this is where this season's water play takes place. One Alabaman confessed to me that, as a result, she was rediscovering parts of her state she had previously overlooked.

I cruised the Mississippi beaches of Biloxi, Gulfport and Long Beach and found cleaning crews in chartreuse vests and white haz-mat suits, removing the tiniest bits of oil along the shore. (Dad calls them "globulets", which sounds like a Tim Burton creation to me.) Several times, I tried to speak to the foreman in the golf cart, and each time I was greeted by two wary hands in the air and given the cold shoulder. My inquisitive nature and the camera invoked some fear, apparently, since they had been instructed not to speak to the press. Fair enough.

"I don't know anything but I can't stop you from taking pictures."
--Standard line from clean-up crew supervisors in Mississippi

I simply wanted to know who was behind the clean-up and got every response from "I don't know" to "a private company." In reality, they were all local companies being sub-contracted by BP. The only person who would speak to me was a woman from the EPA who tried her best to answer my questions while staring nervously at my camera.

I'm not sure why they were so afraid to take credit because the crews were incredibly thorough. With their fine tooth comb-approach, they were spotting bits of oil so tiny on those white sugar sand beaches, I would have easily overlooked them. "After a while, you learn to spot them because it's shiny," one worker told me. I never did find giant blobs of evil muck onshore as we've come to see on front pages across the country. Plenty in big plastic bags though, which locals are not pleased about.

Later in my visit, I recruited a teenage girl, Haley Howard, to be my temporary assistant. We headed over and down, down, down for a closer look at the animal situation, starting with the Wildlife Rehab Center at Fort Jackson in Buras, Louisiana.

Set up in late April, the facility is a joint effort by the International Bird Rescue Research Center and the Tri-State Bird Rescue. A staff of about 10 people -- all experienced biologists and veterinarians -- carefully clean and monitor each bird. While the groups receive numerous inquiries from volunteers, only trained professionals are allowed to handle the animals. Each shift is 12 hours, usually from 7:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m., and the work is taxing.

The day we visited, a juvenile roseate spoonbill was getting her pink self scrubbed clean by three diligent workers. For wild birds, this can be a stressful scenario, and she certainly didn't look comfortable having her wings spread, soaped and rinsed. The workers, though, clearly handled her with great care and -- yes, I have to say it -- love. (Animal-health workers usually choose this career for a reason.)

In total, each bird usually stays about one to three weeks, released only when the animal is fully stabilized. Each one is medically tagged for possible research opportunities down the road. "So far, we haven't had any come back," said Mark Russell, rehab manager.

A reporter asked Russell about the omnipresent Dawn liquid soap that is "getting all this free publicity" from the oil spill. Russell was emphatic in his response: "The thing is, not only do they provide all their product for free, but they've been doing that long before this spill occurred." Evidently, Dawn and the wildlife rehab community have been tight for years so my initial thoughts about their timely marketing opportunism were a bit presumptuous.

Already, over 400 birds have been through the facility and released to Texas, Florida and Georgia. Early in the spill, the facility housed 600 animals (birds, turtles, etc.) at once. Today, there are less than 100 -- all birds. Species include varieties of gulls, pelicans, herons, egrets, skimmers and terns. Also, just because a bird may come in with oil, does not mean it needs full rehabilitation. Only those that are injured, floundering, chilled or dehydrated require the full process.

After walking through big plywood stabilization pens, we went outside and held our noses next to the bird morgue, which has also seen about 600 birds. Each death is cataloged and followed by a necropsy. The bird corpses are then picked up by the Department of Justice, supposedly because if the deaths are the result of human intervention, it is treated as a crime.

The live birds, once cleared for release, are separated by age and put into outdoor holding pens with perches and access to makeshift ponds. At the time of our visit, numerous Brown Pelicans sat around, bored and befuddled, held up by some bureaucratic snafu. They seemed calm in the company of one another, but wild, proud birds with 6-8 foot wingspans are not meant to be caged. (Through this process, I have developed an official crush on pelicans, so elegant in their awkwardness.)

Although the rehab center still receives a steady flow of animals, they are being asked to relocate to Hammond, Louisiana in two weeks by the Department of Homeland Security, supposedly over hurricane concerns. The site will remain in service until it is no longer necessary, hopefully by summer's end.

For more photos from my visit, go here.


BlogHer Contributing Editor, Animal & Wildlife Concerns, Proprietor, ClizBiz