Anatomy of an Olied Pelican

This article first appeared in The Intellectual June 2017

The recent containment breach of a storage tank resulted in a reported 330 barrels of oil being released into the natural environment. Some of this found its way into the Guaracara River and the Gulf of Paria. Pelicans, cormorants, sea gulls and other marine creatures were affected by the spill.

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It’s 9 PM on a hot, humid Caribbean night and 4 birds have just arrived at the clean-up centre in large, plastic pet carriers having endured the 60 km drive from the spill site. By this time they have been captive for between 60 to 90 minutes. Surprisingly, some are still feisty - biting and fighting - as they are removed from the cages. Others are listless and more easily handled. All are covered in thick, sticky, tarry oil. One can be easily forgiven for thinking the oil here is similar to the consistency of cooking oil, or maybe even a quart of 10W-40 engine oil. But it’s not. Through disposable green nitrile gloves, the oil covered birds feel like they have been sprayed with a rubber coating, the texture reminiscent of the liners found in some pick-up trays, but only tackier; like the way lacquer paint feels when it’s just starting to dry. The thick, sticky sludge is on the head, body and wings, around and in the eyes and nostrils, and on webbed feet. It’s also inside the mouth, coating the throat pouch, around the glottis and the nasal slit, and in the worse affected, all the way down the throat. When covered in oil, the birds instinctively begin to preen; excessively and compulsively, even at the expense of feeding. This leads to dehydration and even starvation. As they preen, they also ingest the toxic oil which results in organ damage and a slow, agonizing death.

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The first step in the cleaning process is banding the bird’s beak to prevent further preening and ingesting more oil. Depending on the condition of the bird, eye drops are applied and rectal rehydration may be administered. Next, liberal amounts of baby oil are applied and massaged into the feathers. This seems counter intuitive but the baby oil (mineral oil) begins the process of softening the sludge. Cotton swabs are used to clean the sensitive areas around the eyes, eyelids, nostrils and in the mouth, beak, pouch and throat. Care must be taken to ensure no residue or debris enters the glottis/trachea which could lead to choking and death. Paper towels are then used to “pluck” the oily residue off the feathers. This process of baby oil and paper towels is repeated continuously over the next 3-4 hours until the residue on the paper towels is no longer black but a light brown. At this stage the washing can begin. Sinks of warm water are prepared and Dawn dishwashing liquid is applied directly on the birds. The Dawn must be meticulously massaged and rubbed into the plumage before rinsing. This process is repeated 4-5 times until the water runs clear and may take as long as 90 minutes. They are initially towel dried and then finished using an electric hair dryer set on low. Thawed herrings are offered to the birds to encourage them to feed post cleaning. Finally, the birds are put to bed in cages fitted with electric heating pads.

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The authors of this article would like to recognize and thank Wildlife Orphanage and Rehabilitation Centre (WORC), Wildlife and Environmental Protection of Trinidad and Tobago (WEPTT), the Forestry Division of the Ministry of Agriculture, the Trinidad and Tobago Coast Guard and all the faceless, nameless volunteers who generously donated products and their time to the cleanup and release effort.

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