An American coot is washed during the Cosco Busan oil spill response.
Why Care for Oiled Wildlife?
In California, public demand for the care of oiled wildlife has led to a legal mandate for the OWCN to provide the “best achievable capture and care” to oil-affected animals. After the1989 Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska and the American Trader spill in 1990 near Huntington Beach, public outcry led to the passing of the Lempert-Keene-Seastrand Oil Spill Prevention and Response Act. This Act led to the creation of the Office of Spill Prevention and Response within the Department of Fish and Game, and eventually the establishment of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network in 1994 as its wildlife response arm.
To many people, animals have intrinsic value. That is, they are valuable not for any monetary reason but just for being what they are. Many species at great risk from the effects of oil spills, such as Southern sea otters, play key roles in our environment as “keystone” or “flagship” species and, as such, are critical for maintaining nearshore habitats and acting as “ambassadors” for such ecosystems.
Following an anthropogenic environmental disaster such as an oil spill, the public often demands that damages be repaired as completely as possible. Wildlife rehabilitation, as an effort to reduce animal suffering and repair environmental damages, is an important aspect of this response. The OWCN provides this effort in an efficient and collaborative way so that the general public will not feel compelled to undertake this effort on their own, which can lead to serious personal injuries and damaging exposure to toxic chemicals.
Individual Animal Value
Following its legal mandate, the OWCN collects all oiled wildlife that can be safely captured during oil spill events within California. Although some of these animals may represent abundant or common species, each individual animal has value for multiple reasons. All affected wildlife are evidence during a legal investigation into damages caused by an oil spill. In addition,, the care of abundant species can provide excellent training and research opportunities that inform and improve care for threatened species. Finally, each collected oiled animal provides valuable information as to how we can modify and improve our animal care protocols.
One significant question related to oiled wildlife rehabilitation is whether animals survive after release, and whether they can return to normal function within their population. The OWCN is able to successfully release, on average, 50-75% of all live animals collected in oil spill. The OWCN strives to increase survival rates by having facilities and personnel on standby 365 days a year and by researching better ways to quickly capture and care for affected animals. Recent studies indicate that oiled, rehabilitated animals survive longer than has been previously reported and that they contribute to their populations through reproduction.
Costs of Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation
It has been argued by many that oiled wildlife rehabilitation is prohibitively expensive and that these funds should be redirected toward other restoration efforts. However, oiled wildlife response generally represents only a small fraction of the overall cost of an oil spill response. For example, wildlife care efforts during the Exxon Valdez oil spill accounted for less than 5% of the overall costs of the response.
In the United States, the “spiller” is responsible for all response costs. Funds allocated for wildlife rehabilitation are separate from other environmental response efforts such as population-level restoration and conservation efforts. Therefore, lower rehabilitation costs do not necessarily equate to increased funds for other environmental response. In addition, the OWCN plays a vital role in restoration efforts by providing essential data to the Natural Resource Damage Assessment process, which places a monetary value on the damage to the environment and its resources.