for National Geographic News
First dozens, then hundreds of Magellanic penguins started to wash ashore at Argentina's Cabo Virgenes Nature Reserve in Patagonia in early May.
Oil coated their wings and eyes. Many were dead; others were weak.
When word of the oil spill reached the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) on May 15, the Massachusetts-based environmental group phoned Valeria Ruoppolo.
Within hours, the São Paolo veterinarian mobilized volunteers in Argentina, Chile, and her native Brazil, ready to fly to the remote disaster scene.
"The emergency team made it to Rio Gallegos quickly and was able to provide emergency treatment to 224 Magellanic penguins," Ruoppolo said.
(See map of Patagonia.)
The self-styled "commando vets" are part of a network of animal doctors and biologists ready to travel the world to save oiled seabirds.
The IFAW Emergency Relief Team relies on rapid deployment, know-how, and cases of dish soap to wage their rescue missions.
Oil Spills and Bird Baths
Twenty-four hours after that first call, Ruoppolo had nearly finished building a makeshift field hospital.
A dozen volunteers had built holding pens from cardboard boxes.
They would later procure raw fish for the birds and set up a gas-fired hot water system for cleaning them.
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