Oiled Wildlife Care Network

Rescue and Treatment of Oiled Animals

Based on our ongoing research and experience gained from responding to over 75 spill events, the OWCN has developed the following process for rescuing and treating animals. Each of these steps is vital to the successful recovery of oil-affected wildlife.

Michelle Bellizzi searches for oiled wildlife during the Cosco Busan oil spill1. Field Recovery

Extensively trained OWCN Recovery Personnel are deployed to recover all live and dead oiled wildlife from affected habitats. Live animals are brought into care as soon as possible to increase their chances of survival. Dead animals are removed to reduce secondary oil contamination of the environment and other animals such as potential scavengers, and to aid in documenting the effects of the oil spill upon wildlife.

2. Field StabilizationPhoto: Oiled wildlife taken in for primary stabilization

After recovery, animals receive immediate care at field stabilization sites, which are either bricks-and-mortar facilities or mobile, custom-designed trailers. Oil-affected animals are generally exhausted, hypothermic, and dehydrated; addressing these basic needs is the first step in caring for these animals. Depending upon the size of the spill, the type and number of animals affected, and the distance between the recovery site and the primary care facility, animals may bypass field stabilization and be brought immediately to the facility.

Photo: Oiled birds are transported in pet carriers to facility3. Transport

Oil-affected animals are transported safely and rapidly to the primary care facility in warm and well-ventilated vehicles. Fumes and chemicals off-gassing from the contaminating oil on the animals can pose a safety risk to the animals and to humans; good ventilation and careful monitoring are essential to a successful transport.

 Photo: oiled surf scoter medical exam

5. Intake

Immediately after processing, animals are transferred to a medical team for a comprehensive physical examination. Initial treatments include providing supplemental heat, removing oil from the mouth and eyes if necessary, and providing warm fluids to begin stabilization.

Photo: feeding oiled Western Grebe6. Pre-Wash Care

Although our initial impulse may be to clean the contaminating oil off of an animal immediately after capture, experience has shown that many types of animals, especially birds, benefit greatly from a period of rest and supportive care before the cleaning process begins. Birds are brought to the pre-wash care team for warmth, food, fluids, and medical care. Once a bird has been in care for approximately 48 hours, a pre-wash examination and assessment determines if it is medically stable and ready for wash. Mammals and other species may require a shorter period in pre-wash care before they are ready for cleaning.

Photo: washing oiled grebe

7. Cleaning

Teams of trained people work together to wash birds in a series of tubs filled with a mixture of a dilute cleaning agent and hot, soft water using specific cleaning protocols. Oil-affected marine mammals, including sea otters and fur seals, are generally too large to be immersed in the tubs of hot water and instead are scrubbed with a dilute cleaning agent. Once clean, animals are rinsed thoroughly to remove all contaminants and dried using forced air pet dryers. Washing and rinsing can take more than an hour for each bird and several hours for a sea otter or other mammal.

Photo: Western and Clark's grebes in pool to regain waterproofing8. Pre-Release Conditioning

Animals are placed in outdoor pools or species-appropriate housing where they groom their feathers or coat to restore waterproofing. This process can take as few as 3 – 5 days, or several months if injuries are present.


 photo: releasing eared grebe during Cosco Busan oil spill9. Release

Prior to release, animals are evaluated for waterproofing, species-appropriate behavior, and are expected to pass a comprehensive physical exam. If an animal tests normally, permanent identification bands or tags are attached, and it is released back into a clean habitat.

Photo: released birds10. Post-Release Assessment

Should the spill warrant further follow-up, the OWCN can also conduct a post-release survival study. This often entails attaching radiotelemetry devices developed specifically for the species of interest to monitor the survival and movement of the released animal.