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Published May 14, 2010

Four alpacas at an Alabama zoo are "donating" fleece to a group making hair-filled booms designed to keep spilled oil away from U.S. Gulf Coast shores.

© 2010 National Geographic; Videographer & Field Producer: Fritz Faerber

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Unedited Transcript

Can an Alpaca help protect the shores of the Gulf of Mexico from a massive oil slick?

SOUNDBITE (off camera): Patti Hall, Director, Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo

“They’re not having a great time, but by the time they’re finished, they’re going to feel a lot cooler. “

Some Gulf Coast residents are pinning hopes on what may be a unique defense against millions of gallons of oil that has spewed from a ruptured deep sea drill site.

Soak it up with hair.

Skip a few days of shampooing and human hair can get oily. The link between hair and oil has led salons and pet groomers to save hair to make what is hoped will essentially be giant oil adsorbers.

Hair can be hard to get in high volumes quickly. That’s where these four alpacas at the Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo and several other animal species can lend a hand, or… hoof.

These animals have a LOT of fleece. And Matter of Trust, the group which is one of the coordinators of the so-called hair boom drive says alpaca fleece is great material.

And the zoo is happy to oblige.

SOT: Patti Hall, Director, Alabama Gulf Coast Zoo

“When we were hit with hurricane Ivan, we received contributions from people all over the world. And this is our way of trying to give back and say thank you for what you’ve done for us.“

Hall says the haircut is good for the animals, given the hot and humid weather.

Many Gulf Coast residents are pulling together as the oil slick spreads. The heavy flow since BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil rig burned and sank April 22nd has produced one of the biggest spills in history.

Though scientists are not sure the booms offer a practical defense against the oil, some think it’s worth a try.

University of South Alabama biologist David Nelson says alpaca fleece looks likely to absorb oil well.

SOT – David Nelson, Biologist, University of South Alabama

“The alpaca fleece is a fine kind of hair. It’s the kind that’s close to the body, and it’s very cotton-like. Because of that it’s very small, and it would absorb a great deal of the oil.”

But the timing is important. Nelson says hair booms wouldn’t work once the oil starts evaporating and becomes thicker.

SOT – David Nelson, Biologist, University of South Alabama

“It would work if you had a very liquid form of the petroleum. If it was gunky and forming tar balls, which it does in time, that would not adhere to the hair.”

Not far from the university, volunteers stuff pantyhose with the fleece, human hair clippings and fur from pets.

They slide donated hose over PVC pipes and then stuff the fleece down into the hose. Finally, they tie it off and stack them up.

SOUNDBITE: Jane Ann Lance, Volunteer, Mobile, Alabama

SOT “It’s a renewable resource, and it’s something we can do ourselves.”

It’s unclear how much good the hair booms may do. And cleanup officials- from the federal government and BP, have not approved the method. But scientists are eagerly watching for the outcome.

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