Rehab for Oil-Covered Animals

  • A team feeds a bird that's recovering from exposure to the Kalamazoo River oil spill in Michigan. (Photo by Rebecca Williams)

Canada geese and mallard ducks and turtles and muskrats… covered in oil.

This is the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.

A lot of birds and animals can get caught up in one million gallons of crude oil. No one knows yet exactly how many birds, mammals, turtles, frogs and fish have been affected by the Kalamazoo oil spill. But more than 90 animals have been brought into a wildlife rehab center in Marshall.

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More than half of them are Canada geese. There are more than 30 turtles, and there are several muskrats, swans, and mallard ducks.

(construction sounds)

In a matter of days, workers turned this old casino into an animal hospital. When I visited last week, the decontamination room was still under construction. This is where the birds and animals are being washed this week – in Dawn dish soap.

(sound fades under)

When the birds and animals are brought in, they’re first taken to the intake room – that’s what you’d think of as the emergency room. There, the animal caretakers draw blood, and take vital signs. This area is library-quiet. The workers don’t want to bother the animals… and the animals aren’t making much noise either.

Linda Elliott is with Focus Wildlife. It’s a company that specializes in emergency wildlife rehab after oil spills. They’re the group heading up the animal rescue here. She says people sometimes assume you can just bring animals in and clean the oil off. But she says they’re stressed out… and sometimes in big trouble.

“Sometimes we see anemia problems, dehydration, usually because they’ve been oiled they haven’t been feeding in a while so they’re nutritionally deprived. So we need to get that all taken care of before we put them through the process.”

There are veterinarians here and other volunteers… and everyone’s wearing white zip-up Tyvek suits to protect themselves from the oil. The middle room is full of plywood cages covered in white sheets. Across the room, three people are tube-feeding a swan.

Linda Elliott says they’ll feed the birds the same stuff little kids get when they’re dehydrated: Pedialyte and Ensure, both plain and vanilla flavors.

“And then depending on the species a kingfisher loves live fish, and geese, we hope to get them on grains and dry food and greens.”

After the animals are stable, they’ll go through the washing process… and then on to the drying room. Then they’ll go to the outdoor recovery area to get their strength back. Then, when biologists say the animals are ready, they’ll be released.

Linda Elliott says they hope for a 100% survival rate. But it depends on a lot of things… the weather, how quickly the animals were brought in, the type of oil.

“We’ve had responses with 100% success rate and responses where it’s been in the teens but I think this one is looking very good and we’re looking at hopefully having a high success rate here as well but we won’t know until it’s over.”

Two turtles were released to Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek yesterday. Biologists are still figuring out where the rest of the animals will be released.

Michael Sertle is a biologist with Ducks Unlimited for Western Michigan. He says it can be tricky to relocate birds, especially Canada Geese.

“There’s numerous studies that show if you move Canada Geese, you can move them states away literally and as soon as they can fly they’ll return right back to the wetland you took them off of, and ducks exhibit those same characteristics not quite as strong as Canada Geese.”

Sertle says hopefully, the oil will be cleaned up by the time the birds try to return home. He’s also concerned about the fall migration. He says all kinds of migratory birds might try to land and look for food on the oil spill site… and even if the spill is largely cleaned up… the birds’ normal food sources might not be there.

Experts say if you see an oiled animal, the best thing you can do is to leave it alone… but call the oil spill hotline and report where you saw it. You can find that number on our website, environment report dot org.

That’s the Environment Report. I’m Rebecca Williams.