Looks like we ruffled some feathers (ha!) over at Treehugger, and they’ve posted a response. To be clear, I’m glad that both sides of this debate are focused on helping birds and easing their suffering, but let’s unpack this a bit:
I was assuming that everyone was aware of the opposing view: The conventional wisdom that cleaning birds is a good and worthy practice.
In fact, the opposing view I was hoping to see was a response from IBRRC to Silvia Gaus’s specific claims, not a rehash of how everyone feels about helping animals. We reported on IBRRC’s debunking in our follow-up, pointing out that “Gaus’s statistics are related to past North Sea oil spills, where birds are more prone to freezing”.
I’m sorry if this discussion makes some people uncomfortable, but it’s a discussion worth having.
I enjoy uncomfortable discussions (what vegan doesn’t?) but ultimately, Brian Merchant and I are two amateur observers trying to sort out the facts. Neither of us are doing the work of rescuing birds in the Gulf and observing how well they survive. (Disclosure: I volunteered for the Oiled Wildlife Care Network and cleaned birds following the COSCO Busan oil spill in the San Francisco Bay.)
Novel ideas tend to excite more than the conventional wisdom, but is it truly a discussion worth having? IBRRC spends considerable resources to answer the exact question Mr. Merchant is posing. In science, it’s not the “scrappy bloggers” asking the tough questions; it’s the researchers themselves.
IBRRC doesn’t oppose euthanasia when necessary (and neither do I — not for animals, not for humans). But “kill-not-clean” is quickly becoming the new conventional wisdom, thanks to the media’s approach to science reporting. If Gaus’s claims are reported unchallenged, then the general public will be less willing to support organizations like the IBRRC. Why bother, after all, if they’re spending resources on an entirely futile task?
We should not only be trying to rescue as many animals as we can; we should be trying to understand what happens to them after we do, so we can keep getting better at it. IBRRC has been doing exactly that. Why not ask them about their research?
Well surprise, surprise. The news media and the blogs—including a few that should know better (*cough* Treehugger)—have been bursting at the seams with euthanasia bloodlust for oil-soaked birds. But IBRRC, the actual experts doing the work of bird rescue and research, is pushing back. Silvia Gaus, the German biologist who everyone is quoting, is basing her opinion on bad and outdated science.
Mark Russell, a project manager at the IBRRC, took strong issue with Gaus’ claim that cleaning is ineffective: He told me that the studies on which she based her conclusions suffered from some gaps in procedure. (For example, what were the rehabilitation practices? Did the monitoring equipment that was strapped onto the released birds contribute to their demise? If you can no longer locate a bird with a transmitter, should you always assume that the bird died?)
Other studies indicate that the survival rate for cleaned-up birds can be quite high, from 78 to 100 percent. And as bad as those oily pelicans may look in the pictures from Louisiana, Russell said it’s often the oiliest birds that have the highest survival rate. That’s because they tend to be picked up earlier, before dehydration, hypothermia and other ills have set in.
Russell said there was once a long-running debate over whether the stress of rehabilitation does the birds more harm than good. (Research shows that it doesn’t.)
Each oil spill is different, however, and survival rates often depend on factors such as climate and species, according to Nils Warnock, a wildlife specialist with the Oiled Wildlife Care Network.
No one knows what the survival rate will be for the Gulf species affected by the oil spill. But, Warnock said, “I don’t believe that all these birds that are being rehabilitated for the Deepwater Horizon spill will end up dying.”
He added that Gaus’s statistics are related to past North Sea oil spills, where birds are more prone to freezing after oil has compromised their natural waterproofing.
So there you have it. Clean, rescue, and care for oil-soaked birds. Don’t kill them.
Here’s a simple quiz: If you came home to find your house on fire, would you (a) call the fire department and, while waiting, run in to try and save your family? Or would you (b) assume they were going to die from smoke inhalation anyway, so why not pour some gasoline on the fire and finish the job?
You’re probably not a sociopath, which means you answered (a). So then why the hell is Treehugger pushing the idea that rescuing oil-soaked birds is futile, so we’re better off killing them?
They’re basing this recommendation on the opinion of one biologist in Germany, Silvia Gaus, who claims that “the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under 1 percent.” We’re expected to be impressed because “even the World Wildlife Fund agrees.”
Do rehabilitated birds in oil spills survive once they have been released?
I wish I had a yes or no answer but it just is not that simple. The truth is that, yes, many have a very good chance of survival. We have documented many survival stories but it is very difficult to follow up on sea birds that live in colonies in remote areas and who basically look the same except for little silver bands on one leg. In most cases we receive less than a 1 percent return rate on banded birds and especially sea birds that live in colonies that sometimes range in the millions. But we are always working to establish and apply any post release studies that we can.
IBRRC openly admits that there isn’t enough data, but what they do know is much more encouraging than “put ‘em out of their misery.” Here is one such study [PDF]. Rescued birds from the Santa Clara River oil spill survived for years and continued to migrate.
Even if only one rescued bird survives (or survives long enough to breed!), it’s worth doing. BP’s oil volcano is a moral tragedy, and we have an obligation to throw every resource available towards saving as many animals as possible. This probably makes me “unserious” or “sentimental,” but it’s shameful for an eco-conscious blog like Treehugger to push this kind of “counter-intuitive” bullshit. What’s good is actually bad so let’s kill some birds! UGH.
Maybe it’s just my corner of the world, but everyone I know is having the week from hell: overworked, overstressed, or cleaning up after coworkers who keep dropping off the face of the earth. “But how ‘bout that weather, Bob?” is only a small consolation; I’m stuck indoors after the sun burned my face off at Beats and Brunch on Saturday. (CAUTIONARY TALE: wear sunscreen. You will want to sit out there for hours. Trust your Vegansaurus on this one; it’s the best outdoor brunch in San Francisco history, but leatherface is too high a price to pay.)
But white whines aside (poor me, my weekend brunch was too leisurely), the Gulf oil spill is shaping up to be the biggest oil disaster since the Exxon Valdez, inducting this week into the Worst Week Ever Hall of Fame. If you have money or time, listen to Laura and help out IBRRC. And next time IBRRC has an oil spill response training, listen to me and go sign up.
All because this insane world is obsessed with oil. You’d think that during an epic disaster, everyone would be clamoring for clean energy, and the “drill baby drill” crowd would STFU for maybe a second. When Arizona passed their anti-brown-skinned immigrants law, people were (rightly) pissed off. They marched in the streets and launched crippling boycotts, and there is no doubt in my mind that the racists will find themselves on the wrong end of an open can of frothy backlash.
So where’s the anger over the wholesale destruction of the Gulf of Mexico? Where are the protests over the deaths of an uncountable number of birds and marine life, the economic ruin of the Gulf, or hell, even the eleven people who died on the platform? All we’re getting is “shit happens, let’s clean this one up, and go back to pretending like everything is fine and dandy” from the President all the way on down.
I’m glad there’s been a swift response to the spill, but can you spot what’s missing from the 10 Things You Can Do to Help the Gulf Coast Clean the Oil Spill list? Anything about ending the world’s oil addiction. Anything about passing the climate bill that is now completely stalled and watered down into oblivion. Anything about ending offshore drilling.
And don’t tell me that vague form letters urging nothing in particular from the Sierra Club’s website counts as anything. Compare the response to Arizona. Any major cities boycotting BP? Any marches against offshore drilling? Any new campaigns to boost public transit, or bikes, or wind, or anything running alongside the disaster and to connect people’s daily habits with the spill? No, just more clicktivism and form letters.
I know politics is boring and unseemly, but it’s like everyone really wants to believe this oil disaster is some kind of an isolated incident, or bad luck. ”We’ve had problems with car design, but you don’t stop driving. The Challenger accident was heart-breaking but we went back to space,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, one of the architects of the stalled climate bill, about offshore drilling. Even Obama is calling it “premature" to consider reversing his plans for oil exploration.
All the finger-pointing at BP is irrelevant. Yes, it’s convenient to have a single villain, and yes, BP really did fuck up. But a spill of this size was inevitable, and it’s going to keep happening over and over again like Groundhog Dog until people stop whining about gas prices and actually give a shit about breaking the economy’s addiction to oil. Our politicians may be too timid and pathetic to make that point, but surely they can be jolted into paying attention?
Fuck, I don’t know. Anyway, don’t let this rant turn you off to doing the 10 things on that list, because that isn’t the point. Disasters of this size require immediate response and prevention. Unfortunately, other than a few mostly-ignored eco-blogs, you won’t read a single word about prevention. Because no one wants to admit that every person alive is responsible for that spill, even you and me, and the only way off this ferris wheel is to get rid of oil, starting now.
Or, starting after watching videos of adorable sneezing animals, because we all need a reason to live, and make sure to skip the bear. Something’s just not right about that one.
Devastating oil spill SUCKS BALLS: How we can help! »
This is one of those disasters that’s of such large impact that it’s almost impossible to wrap your mind around it. Also, it’s one of those things that if you stop to think about that you’ll just start crying and never stop. Kinda like the fact that Gwyneth Paltrow is still a working actor. OH LAURA SO PETTY. Anyway, with this kind of thing, it’s impossible to not feel helpless but there is something we can do.