Oiled Wildlife Care Network

Oiled Wildlife Care Network

  Illustrated by  Elizabeth De Jure Wood.

Interview with Christine Fiorello, Wildlife Care Coordinator at UC Davis' Oiled Wildlife Care Network. During oil spill response, Christine acts as the Care and Processing Group Supervisor or Care Unit Leader, and clinical veterinarian at the rehabilitation facility. 

Please tell us who you are, a bit about Oiled Wildlife Care Network and your role.

The OWCN is a program of UC Davis Vet School, but really the key is the network component – we have 40 organizations throughout the state that participate in capturing and caring for oiled wildlife. We work closely with the state Office for Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR), a part of the CA Dept of Fish & Wildlife. California has the most aggressive program in the country for preventing and responding to oil spills.

I am a wildlife veterinarian and act as the Response Veterinarian during spills. I oversee the care of all the animals in whatever facility we are working in – we have several permanent facilities up and down the coast. In between spills, I work on training volunteers, improving care protocols, performing research, and generally maintaining our preparedness. 

I have a PhD in wildlife disease ecology from Columbia University and completed a residency in wildlife medicine at the University of Florida. After a few years as faculty at the University of Georgia vet school, I came to the OWCN. 

How did you become interested in working with oiled animals? What sort of training did you have to undergo?

I have always been interested in caring for free-ranging wildlife, especially those negatively affected by human activities. I also like the idea of working with a variety of species. When I came here, I already had extensive training in the medicine and husbandry of wildlife, so I mainly just had to learn about the specifics of caring for seabirds that are affected by oil. Seabird care is about 90% husbandry and 10% medicine – you have to get the husbandry right or they won’t survive the rehab process. 

What is the chain of events at OWCN when a spill occurs?

First, we are activated by OSPR. Typically the first thing we do is send out recovery teams to find and collect oiled animals, and notify our network that a spill is occurring. While that is happening, we begin preparing a facility to receive animals. This means increasing the temperature of the building, to keep birds warm, setting up net-bottomed pens for seabirds, calling in volunteers, testing the water heaters and water quality, and assembling supplies and equipment. Staff and volunteers at the facility are arranged into teams by room and area – for example, we need teams to admit birds and collect evidence (photos and oil samples), teams to feed animals, teams to wash them, etc. Once birds start arriving, controlled chaos ensues as the teams get suited up in Tyvek and start working as quickly as possible to get birds processed, warmed, hydrated, and fed. It takes 24–48 hours of TLC before an oiled bird is ready to be washed, so a lot of effort goes into each bird even before they are washed. After washing, birds are dried under commercial pet driers – just like at the dog groomers! Then birds go through a several-days-to-a-couple-of-weeks process of swimming in pools, coming indoors to dry, then swimming in pools, back and forth, until they are fully waterproof. Interestingly, we cannot “make” a bird waterproof – only the birds can do that! We can remove the oil and keep the bird healthy, but it is the bird’s preening (caring for feathers using their beaks) that realigns the feathers, conditions them, and renders them waterproof again. If a bird is not strong or healthy enough to preen, it will not become waterproof. So our job is to ensure that the bird gets good nutrition and care so it is strong enough to preen. 

What animals are most affected by these spills? Which ones respond best to your treatment?

Seabirds are the most commonly affected birds, but that is a big, varied group of birds, including grebes, murres, ducks, diving ducks, gulls, loons, coots, fulmars, pelicans, cormorants, and probably some others I’m forgetting! The ones that respond best are the ones that are hardy in general, so ducks, coots, pelicans, gulls – birds that handle being in captivity and being around humans. Without a doubt, the loons fare the worse: they do not adjust well to captivity, and suffer from all sorts of secondary complications associated with being somewhere other than their natural habitat. Grebes also tend to do poorly – neither grebes nor loons can walk, and neither is built to ever be on a solid surface. They spend their entire lives either floating, diving, or flying. They get pressure sores on their legs, feet, and the keel bone (breastbone), even when they are on net-bottomed pens. 

Of the animals you treat, how many are fully rehabilitated? Are there any that must remain in captivity?

I can answer that question with a single number, but it won’t be very meaningful because it varies so much! I would say approximately 60-65% of animals survive to release. However, it varies by species, by spill, by season- by everything! During the Refugio spill in Santa Barbara, our overall success rate was 68%, but 86% of pelicans survived, 100% of grebes survived (there was only a single grebe!), 100% of cormorants survived (again, there was just one), and 0% of murres survived. 

It is very rare for animals to remain in captivity after a spill. Our goal is to get animals back “home,” and captivity is definitely not home. While it is hard to euthanize birds that maybe could survive in captivity, the vast majority of these birds don’t survive well in captivity anyway. For example, when was the last time you saw a loon in a zoo? Probably never! And, most of the birds that are doing too poorly to release have problems that are severe enough that they would not do well in captivity either. We would never want to keep an animal with chronic pain alive just for the sake of keeping it alive – that would not be ethical.

Where do you find the most spills?

It seems like the LA area is a common area for small spills, but of course that is also where a tremendous amount of shipping occurs!

Beyond the immediate aftermath, what lasting effects to spills have on the ecosystem?

There’s an entire field of research that examines that issue, and it is not my area of expertise. But, we know that oil can be found in sediments in areas where spills have occurred many years and even decades after spills. Similarly, reproductive effects may be seen for years on bird populations. There is some evidence that low exposure to oil, that is not fatal, may cause a decrease in reproductive function in many animals. We don’t have a lot of information on effects on fish and invertebrates after spills, but they are at the base of many food webs and could potentially experience complicated and profound effects. 

What's the most rewarding part of your job? Do you have a favorite memory at work?

Without doubt, releasing animals back home is the best!!! I have a couple of favorite memories associated with the Refugio spill. One is of the very first oiled pelican that was brought into the center, Blue One. He was a big adult male, and we have a photo of him crumpled in a box looking like a blob of oil, not a bird. He did not do well in rehab for several weeks – he gradually started eating, and then moving around more, but once he was washed and in the aviary, he wasn’t flying. We were worried that ultimately he’d have to be euthanized if he couldn’t fly . . . . and then one day, he flew across the entire aviary! He was released and spotted in the wild shortly afterwards, doing just fine. My other favorite memory from that spill was the release of“grebey.” We had only one oiled grebe admitted, and he was totally, completely oiled. He had a few bumps in the road during rehab, but I was able to release him, and it was wonderful to see him swim off and not look back!

Overall, are oil spills decreasing? How can they be prevented? 

In California, oil spills are decreasing because of the extensive and complete regulatory and prevention program of the state. Unfortunately, the rest of the world doesn’t do a very good job of reporting oil spills, so we honestly don’t know if spills are decreasing or increasing. We’re very lucky in the country in that if oil is spilled, the spiller is held responsible. That is not the case in most of the rest of the world. 

What is the biggest threat to the environment?

People and especially the “western” lifestyle: climate change, resource extraction, plastic pollution and our culture of disposable everything.

What are some steps people can take to protect the earth?

Reduce, reuse, recycle. Use less energy. Car pool. Turn off the lights. Little actions combined add up to major impact! Remember that everything you buy took resources to make. Think about what will happen when you are done with it. Sure that plastic bottle gets thrown into a recycling bin, but recycling takes energy, water, and resources. Do you really need to buy those plastic Easter eggs? Hard boil some real eggs instead!

Have you noticed any positive trends in environmentalism?

People are more conscious of the need to protect the environment, but sadly, the current administration is doing all it can to dismiss environmental concerns. We need to keep them front and center, and support the excellent work that so many are doing in the name of conservation. A healthy planet is a necessary requirement for healthy people!

Although I'm a vegetarian, I support Heifer International because they support food security and empower women. And I love the fact that their program helps whole communities by starting out helping one family. 

To Live Tiny

To Live Tiny

Juliet Lamb, Project Pelican

Juliet Lamb, Project Pelican