Afternoon InquisitionScience

AI: Cleaning your penguin

That is not a euphemism. This is actually about cleaning penguins.  Or, more specifically, cleaning oil off of penguins after an oil spill.

My perspective on animal rehabilitation has changed a lot in the last 4 years. For much of that time I was the manager of a Bird Sanctuary, and involved with rehabilitation of injured birds and animals. I also was involved in turtle triage during the cleanup of the 2010 Michigan Oil Spill.

In the New Zealand spill, the birds that have been harmed are Little Blue Penguins. They are….well, adorable.  The article I linked to above describes in detail the laborious steps of getting thick oil off an active little bird:

“…the fuel oil that’s spilled from the Rena is really thick, so we first rinse the birds with canola oil, sold as cooking oil at the supermarket. This helps soften the fuel oil and get off the really thick stuff.

Then the penguin is washed multiple times in 25L basins of warm water – about 41C, to match the bird’s body temperature – with 100ml of dishwashing detergent in each basin. We use specially imported dishwashing liquid that’s the best for the job.

We change water four or five times. One vet holds the bird, while the other scrubs it. We have toothbrushes for the delicate bits.   Once the oil is gone, the bird gets a final rinse in warm water only, and is then checked for any missed spots, and the detergent is washed off.

It takes about 45 minutes to an hour for each bird to be washed….During my shift – we’re only allowed to work eight hours – I helped clean three penguins.”

Then the penguins have to be dried, fed, and placed in care  until they are well enough to be released.  This is a lot of work, and it’s mostly done by volunteers, FSM love ’em.

My work with wildlife rehab after the Michigan oil spill was mostly centered around turtles.  During the peak of the spill, field teams recovered 70+ turtles coated in heavy crude every day.  It took 2-3 hours to clean ONE medium-sized turtle (about the size of my hand).

The thing that makes all of this just that much more difficult is that the oil itself is toxic waste. Anything that comes in contact with the oil–including soapy water and dishrags– has to be disposed of as hazardous waste.  The oil in Michigan had a lot of benzene, a known carcinogen; the New Zealand oil is heavy crude, which has similar toxicity.   So before anyone can touch a bird or a turtle, they have to learn about how to safely deal with toxic waste, the risks they are exposing themselves (and their gonads) to, and sign a lot of paperwork.

One of the biggest challenges we faced with the Michigan spill was controlling well-meaning people that wanted to pick up injured wildlife–including big birds like herons and geese–and “help” them without any training.  Not only is touching wildlife without the proper permits or training illegal, it’s bloody dangerous.  You might be surprised at just how aggressive a scared, injured bird can be. Or a muskrat.

This makes authorities look like heartless bastards when they tell people to let birds coated with oil stay put until a retrieval team can get to them. People see the oil-covered animals. They look horrible and unhappy. But wading into a toxic waste site to “save” the birds is risky for both people and animals.  And once you have the toxic sludge on you, then you are a source of contamination.

It’s a bad situation all around.

And, as I mentioned above, it is incredibly time and labor intensive to clean contaminated animals up.
As adorable as the little turtles were, I left them for last to clean.  The hard reality is that most baby turtles die, with or without an oil spill.  I  focused on the big (>8cm)  turtles, since they were reproductive age, and had the best chance of both surviving the stress of the cleaning and producing offspring the next year to re-stock the river.

Every night I worked at the cleanup, I came home and cried.

A lot of birds came in for rehab; the majority of them were Canada Geese, but also some herons and a kingfisher. I was a little conflicted about saving all the Canada Geese. Birds are pretty high stress animals; and frankly, it’s not like the Midwest is running short of geese.  Why not just euthanize the geese, rather than start a traumatic rehabilitation process? Why not take that volunteer time and effort and put it to use on other, less common animals? Or un-charismatic fauna, like snapping turtles?

Neither Canada geese or Little Blue Penguins have an endangered conservation status–they are both species that are doing well.  But….it’s easier for me to want to save the penguins, partly because they are adorable.

AI: Should it make a difference? Should cleanup efforts be prioritized with the knowledge that we can’t save everything? Or do we have an ethical duty to make right what humans have harmed?  Should animals be euthanized rather than undergo the trauma of rehabilitation? Which ones?

[penguin image courtesy of mpfl]


Bug_girl has a PhD in Entomology, and is a pointy-headed former academic living in Ohio. She is obsessed with insects, but otherwise perfectly normal. Really! If you want a daily stream of cool info about bugs, follow her Facebook page or find her on Twitter.

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  1. Some triage is reasonable. They can’t all be saved. Someone has to make the hard decision whether to treat or euthanize each animal based on some agreed upon criteria like species, age and/or chance of survival. No one wants to kill the poor things, but someone has to stand up and do what is right, even if it feels like crap. What shouldn’t happen is that an injured animal spends its last days, suffering and terrified, under the care of a misguided do-gooder. Unless the animal stands a reasonable chance of survival, it is better to humanely euthanize.

  2. We do have an ethical duty to return the environment as much to pristine as possible, especially in the case of an unplanned release. I think it would be better to euthanize if the damage to the animal is irreversible (on an individual basis)and triage the way you did. It is better to help the survival of a species than an individual.

  3. What about raccoons? They are a pest species, and certainly not in short supply. But many of them are rescued as babies (and they are VERY cute babies), and released as adults.

    At the same time, many people trap and kill raccoons.

    Should we stop rescuing certain species that are known pests?

    (Euthanasia of all injured european starlings in the US, rather than rehabilitation, for example.)

    1. I wouldn’t donate money to any effort to rescue injured individuals of an invasive species or one requiring an intensive control program, and I’d consider anyone donating to such an effort a fool.

      In an oil spill in Norway for instance I’d be all for mercy killing each and every canada goose.

    2. What about deer? Their massive population explosion has very real negative consequences for human health: car accidents, airplane mishaps, Lyme disease…..So do we rescue deer? The answer is yes, we do. Add to that the fact that we hunt, kill and eat deer. So why do we save one individual fawn? Wait, so we save a fawn and then have veal for dinner? I am not a vegetarian and I don’t have any answers. It’s just a weird disconnect in the way we view various species.

  4. Humans are the ultimate invasive species.

    Ideally, all harm done by humans should be made right. However, this is not always possible. I worked as a veterinary technician for several years and euthanasia was part of the job. At first, this was very hard for me, even though the animals were ill or fatally injured. But then I began to see what was happening. We were taking their pain upon ourselves in order to give them relief. I feel this is one of the kindest things you can do.

    Triage on an individual basis seems the best option in this situation. Understanding our own personal bias in favor of the “cute” animals, perhaps it is best to leave the decisions up to someone who is confident they can make them objectively.

  5. Gotta have triage duty. Nobody likes it, we all wish we could do away with it but the truth is, some species should come first and before that, we should be helping the ones that stand the best chance of recovery after emergency aid.

    Invasive species should be rehabilitated but not released back into the systems in which they are considered to be invasive. Professional owners (like the people who professionally care for bears) could have a go at it, or something of that nature. But, of course, the native species (especially at risk species) should get priority when it comes to rescue.

  6. I was just wondering if the imported dishwashing detergent they are using is Dawn. I go out of my way to buy only Dawn, because it has cute little penguins or baby seals on it and says they donate to animal rescue.

    1. Unconfirmed anecdote time: according to a story I read in Consumer Reports or some such place many years ago, Dawn worked best at cutting grease.

      Little Blue Penguins, locally known as Fairy Penguins are very common in Tasmania, home of my biologist niece. A couple of years ago, when she was six, I was visiting there and we took a vacation-within-a-vacation to Bicheno, on the east coast. One night at about 9:30 we went out to see one of the local attractions which was standing quietly on a path about 30 meters from the shore while the penguins crossed on their way to their burrows under the bushes. We saw about a dozen of them pass very close to us. We all agreed “Julia has to see this” even though it was way past her bed time, so the next night we took her to see them. We were certain we were going to be banned for life, but with her typical animal wrangling skills, instead just quietly waiting for them, she called to them and they came by the dozens, and didn’t seem to be annoyed at all by her flash camera. She also seemed to have a knack for spotting their trails and the birds themselves.

      They were extremely cute, second only to the Echidnas.

  7. My thoughts on this are the same as anyone deciding to donate time or money or effort to, for example, saving an endangered species (even though extinction is both common and inevitable, and even if that same effort could be spent, say, feeding the homeless).

    If someone wants to put the effort forth, or spend the money, let them do it. What they consider of value, or what makes them feel better, is their call.

    But if you’re going to do it, do it right. Don’t touch a wild animal if you don’t know how to handle it. Don’t assume that any baby wildlife you find without its parents has been ‘abandoned’ or ‘fallen from the nest’ (it hasn’t). And don’t attempt to care for wildlife if you don’t know what you’re doing.

    I had a friend in high school who volunteered at a vet clinic, and she took in a nest of baby starlings who were going to be euthanized. She raised them up on canned dog food, and then, once they could fly, drove her still-begging birds out into the country and abandoned them. I didn’t have the heart to tell her what she’d done wrong. It would have been kinder to let them be euthanized.

  8. This may sound horrid to some people but I think most if not all the money and efforts directed at rehabilitation is wasted and should be spent on habitat preservation and finding ways to diminish the damage being done by non native and invasive species. And euthanizing animals that are very likely to die or require extensive and costly care is humane and reasonable IMO.

  9. As much as I agree that triage is needed, it’s pretty easy to say that, but much harder to be the vet or tech that has to kill all those animals. I did some wildlife rehab in vet school and we had about a 50% euthanasia rate. It was not pretty.

  10. Hey bug girl, I’m interested, what training did you have to undergo? Wildlife rehabilitation is something I have always been interested in, but where does one start?

    1. Wildlife rehab is mostly managed on a state-by-state basis, with the exception of species with special status (bald eagles, for example).
      You have to be a licensed rehabber to have wild animals in your care; this is especially true for Herps and birds.

      Every rehabber I know (caveat: in the midwest) is a volunteer. They give their homes completely over to the animals. It takes a really special person to be willing to wake up every 2 hours to feed a tiny animal that will probably die.
      A lot of vets donate time to help, or at least give reduced rates.

      The folks I know mostly learn by doing–helping as a volunteer and then graduating to a license. In Michigan, anyway, you have different permissions and levels of care required for different animals. There is a truly AMAZING amount of paperwork involved in holding an injured animal, especially a raptor. Then there is educational use vs. rehabilitation–urg.
      Suffice to say, it’s complex, and varies state to state.

      With all the recent oil spills, there now is a cadre of folks that actually professionally cleans animals. Enbridge brought in a bunch of people from Alaska to work in Michigan. That’s both good and a disturbing development.

  11. It’s reasonable that you have to prioritize you efforts as you have limited resources.

    However, I think that animal rehabilitation from toxic waste spills should be done by professionals, and that the bill should be footed by the company responsible for the spill.

    One of the reasons our economy doesn’t try to reduce pollution and waste is that society bears much of the cost caused by it. Companies would be more conscious of the ecological consequences of their actions if they were responsible for them.

    1. See my response to Kelfen. Enbridge did set up a wildlife rehab center, and hired -some- staff to work with it. However, most people were still volunteers.

      Setting up the facility took a while, since the reporting lines had to be sorted out. Who was in charge? US Fish and Wildlife? State Department of Environmental Quality? State Wildlife? Alaskan consultants?

      The biggest challenge was preparing to *create* a major toxic waste site. The building they used for rehab would have to be completely gutted after this project, and all water/waste had to be captured and kept out of the normal water stream. Everyone involved with the animals had to have at least minimal HAZWOPPER training
      because of the toxic waste.

      It was really nasty stuff.

  12. When the BP oil spill happened, the company I work for had a program to develop one of our products (the high carbon from fly ash) into an oil sorbent. The carbon is porous, and has adsorptive properties, just like activated carbon. We were going to contain the sorbent in fabric that was permeable to oil and would float. Tether the bags in a place where there is oil, and the oil would wick into the bag and be tied up by the carbon.

    Our idea was that these could be used to remediate marshes. Tether a bag to a stake, and leave it there, and whenever oil comes to the surface, it wicks into the bag. When the bag is full, replace it with another. The carbon has such an affinity for oil, that oil would move off of vegetation and into the carbon.

    We demonstrated that the carbon would take PAHs (polyaromatic hydrocarbons), the stuff in oil that is most toxic and reduce them to below detection limits, every single one in the 18 compound analytical standard.

    When we contacted the EPA, they rejected it just because it used fly ash. Our data didn’t matter.

  13. I believe we, humans, bear some moral responsibility for helping save the lives of some (even a small fraction) of wildlife harmed by our actions.

    I can offer no rational justification for this; it’s just my gut instinct.

    Also, penguins are awesome.

    Also, for helping penguins, bug_girl is awesome.

  14. Clean up efforts need to prioritised, and those birds and other animals affected (such as seals) that can be saved and should be saved if it can managed. If too far gone, it’s more humane to put them down and concentrate on those ones that can be saved.

    As to whether there is the obligation to save these birds and other species at threat from the oil spill, yes, definitely.

    New Zealand already has had too many species decimated by introduced species (NZ actually had no land mammals with the exception of an native bat at the time of human colonisation). Little blue penguins in particular while not considered threatened as yet, are already at risk from predators like rats and stoats. Add in losses from such things as algae blooms and changing weather patterns (La Nina has been blamed for penguins found dead of starvation this year by reducing the amount of baitfish available) in the last couple of years and that it’s breeding season for them and other species and this is a disaster for them.

    If the losses were only due to natural causes it would probably be fine and the population can recover without intervening, but we have a duty with very much man-made disasters to try and give a helping hand and not just because we think they are cute.

    More on the clean up effort:

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