Penguins Caught in Oil Spill Saved by "Commando" Veterinarians

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But the team's first task was to warm the birds, since it is killer cold—not hunger—that poses the greatest threat.

When the hospital was ready two days later on May 18, hundreds of penguins were placed in warming pens.

Volunteers needed the birds to gain strength before they could tackle the cause of the penguins' misery: oiled feathers.

Seabirds like pelicans, penguins, and cormorants are highly vulnerable to oil, which can cover their feathers with a gluelike substance that can immobilize the animals.

Removing that "black glue" is the primary work of the Emergency Relief Team.

Dish Soap

After years of research, IFAW and the California-based International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) discovered that Dawn dish soap excels at removing oil from feathers.

The detergent is now a staple in rescue efforts. (Manufacturer Proctor and Gamble donates truckloads of the stuff.)

Other field-tested techniques include high-pressure water warmed to prevent hypothermia.

"It probably takes 300 gallons [1,100 liters] of water per bird," said Rodolfo Pinho Silva, a Brazilian vet with IFAW.

Staffers scrub the birds clean with toothbrushes.

Because oil is toxic to wildlife, even with quick relief efforts, many birds still die.

By the time they wash ashore, many of the animals are already on a death spiral.

Penguins fare a bit better. About 75 percent of rescued birds are later released into the wild, often within just four to six weeks.

In the case of the Cabo Virgenes oil spill, Ruoppolo, the São Paolo vet, estimates that half of her 224 avian charges will be freed shortly.

Mystery Spill

The source of the Cabo Virgenes slick remains a mystery. Oil continues to poison and immobilize birds in the region.

"Mystery oil spills like this one in Patagonia kill literally hundreds of thousands of seabirds every year," said Barbara Callahan, a relief leader for the IFAW rescue operation.

Catastrophic spills like Alaska's Exxon Valdez disaster in 1989 and Spain's Prestige wreck in 2002 seem to grab headlines every decade.

But most oil spills escape public notice.

Every day hundreds of small spills contaminate the world's oceans. Rarely are the polluters caught.

The only signs of the crime are a dispersed oil spill along a remote coast and the subsequent tide of tragedy.

"In the case of Argentina an estimated 40,000 penguins have died—every year," Callahan said.

She blames oily bilge water dumped from ships for much of the destruction.

Coast Guard

The total number of saved birds is relatively modest—about 50,000 over the past ten years of rescue operations.

While the effort to save birds is sometimes criticized as an expensive use of scarce conservation dollars, participants say such calculations miss the true value of bird rescue operations.

They say "commando vet" operations also plant the seeds for animal rescue support groups around the world.

During the spill from the single-hulled oil tanker The Prestige along the coast of northern Spain, local vets and biologists met on rescue operations.

Participants say that when the operation ended, the community stayed in contact and bolstered their training for future spills.

They now serve as ecological lookouts for IFAW and IBRRC along hundreds of miles of rich coastal waters.

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