Mercy and Release: Oiled Bird Rehabilitation on the Gulf Coast

by Danielle Steer


During my time with wildlife rehabilitation in Louisiana and Alabama, I have come in contact with many species of birds - pelicans, herons, loons, and gulls. Some birds came in oiled, some had been caught in the booms, some exposed to dispersants, and others captured for unknown health issues. I have had the opportunity to assist in every step of bird rehabilitation - intake evaluations, washing with Dawn detergent, feeding, siphoning dirty pools, administering medication, drawing blood, releasing into the wild, and euthanasia.

It was explained on my first day that it is better to euthanize a bird not healthy enough to tolerate treatment than to release it, knowing it could suffer and die in the wild. The process of capture and rehabilitation is stressful on the already weakened birds. This “mercy” was a comforting way to cope with euthanasia. It worked for a while. I was aware of the various birds that were put down for open lesions on their carpals, hawk pox, gunshot wounds, and the intestinal deterioration caused when birds ingest oil.

There are no words to describe the experience of participating in my first euthanasia. The emotional rollercoaster and internal conflict is much like a storm. At first I am calm and collected, aware that this decision is best for the bird. Following protocol I prepare the needles and sanitize the skin. My colleague and I realize the veins are shrunken, probably from dehydration, inhibiting her needle from injecting the anesthetic. The bird kicks as soon as she finally finds the vein. I should have held its leg tighter. Controlled chaos ensues. She tries higher up in the vein, no good. We go to the other foot, three more failed attempts. I flip over the stressed out, flailing bird to open its wing.

Unable to understand that we are trying to help, wild birds see us as predators. Finally, my colleague successfully injects the anesthetic and the bird is asleep. Now we need a place to inject the potassium chloride. Only two points left - the other wing and the jugular. My anxiety starts to set in. Check the eye membrane, still alive. Even though the bird cannot feel anything, there is a rush of sadness and guilt as my colleague injects the 2ccs of potassium chloride - stopping the heart and ending the life of a Northern Gannet.

The bird is now calm. I step back from the stillness and wait, wondering if we did it right. Did the heart really stop? I should have held the leg tighter on the first try. Did it suffer? I replay the procedure over and over again in my head as the tears stream down my face. I try to cling to the ‘mercy’ justification, but the tears keep flowing. My veteran colleague holds my hand, realizing it is my first.

Luckily, not all the procedures are complicated. In fact, most are much smoother and guilt free. I guess I never realized I could feel so much empathy for another species. The experience has shown me that I want nothing more than to help and care for these creatures in the best way I can - to return them to the wild as soon as they are deemed fit or end their misery. I feel that I owe it to them to do everything in my power to atone for my species.

Wildlife rescuers currently have an increased presence in the Gulf because of the oil spill response. There are more than 775 personnel from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the National Park Service, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration working in response to the Deepwater Horizon spill. Most work in teams to conduct wildlife surveys by air, land, and water to search for affected birds.

The International Bird Rescue Research Center (IBRRC) estimates that 50-80 percent of the birds captured will be released back into the wild. To date over 500 birds from the Gulf Coast states have been rehabilitated and released. It is now clear to me why those who work in the wildlife industry are passionate about work that is so difficult and sad - the reward of releasing a live, healthy bird is greater than anything else I have ever experienced.

Waking in the middle of the night to put birds in kennels does not seem like the ideal work opportunity, but it is probably my favorite to date. On the afternoon before the release everyone from construction workers to rehab technicians are readying the birds that are fit to release. We busy ourselves performing evaluations, getting health certificates signed by a local veterinarian, assembling and lining kennels with towels and shade cloth, and finalizing transportation logistics. There is an air of excitement as we near the end of the twelve hour work day, knowing that in a mere few hours, the rehabilitated birds will be returned to the wild.

At 2:30 in the morning I’m heading to the Rehabilitation Center. No yawning during this early hour. We are all too elated about getting the birds out of captivity. Two teams begin catching pelicans to secure the final colored bands and to put them in their kennels. Throughout their captivity, birds are marked with numbered bands to help track their progress. Just before their release, they are given federal bands in hopes that scientists can continue to learn about them in the wild. Government and wildlife personnel choose clean, oil-free environments for the release - sometimes far from the bird’s original, damaged environment. Timing is critical. The transport truck will arrive at 4 am and the flight leaves at 6 am - with or without the birds. Since some of the pelicans and gannets have been waiting weeks to be released there is no room for error. The photographer vigorously snapping pictures does not mitigate the stress.

The epoxy containers used to secure the colored bands won’t open and the transport truck will be here in 30 minutes. Everyone starts running around looking for pliers or a set of strong hands to open the cans. Excitement turns to quiet panic. The security guard comes through with pliers and we begin the banding. Four pelicans done and the truck arrives. Our pace quickens. We finish the 11th pelican and head out to the pelagic pools where the cleaned birds are held for the 11 gannets. After putting the first gannet in a kennel we realize the net bottoms built earlier that day are too tall and tipsy for a plane ride. We begin taking off the feet to lower them while the photographer and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife technician sit by idly, discussing the lack of light during the middle of the night.

Ten minutes later all the gannets are secured. The transport official is assembling the kennels like a puzzle in the trailer. I run to the pools and my colleague goes inside to double check we have every pelican and gannet that was banded. As the driver signs the paperwork, we all stand around the back taking one last look at the birds we had been slaving over for the past few weeks. There is a brief sense of sadness saying goodbye to those with whom we had bonded the most. Then relief.

Rehabilitation technicians spend at least twelve hours every day tending to the birds in their care Even though we try to limit the amount of contact between human and wild bird, many require special care and attention. Although my colleagues are professionals, I think they would agree that the time and energy spent with each gannet, pelican, laughing gull, and loon creates an intimate bond between handler and animal. This bond is what drives us to get the healthy birds out of captivity as soon as possible. For a brief passing moment I was sad to see my favorite gannet leaving the facility; but I felt like a proud parent sending my child off on her own, knowing I had done everything in my power for her.

I have learned more in the past few weeks than I imagined was possible. But perhaps, my greatest insight is about the power, influence, and impact of humans on the world around us. I am grateful everyday to be able to be a part of a relief effort for a disaster that, as a consumer and car owner, I helped cause.

danielle steerAbout the author: Hailing from Anchorage, Alaska, Danielle Steer graduated from the Monterey Institute of International Studies with a Master of Public Administration. She received her Bachelor of Arts in Political Science from Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Oregon. After graduating from MIIS, Danielle worked in Peru developing financial strategies for a group of indigenous women in the Sacred Valley. She now serves as the Enrollment Manager for the International Environmental Policy, International Policy, and Public Administration programs at MIIS.

3 comments on “Mercy and Release: Oiled Bird Rehabilitation on the Gulf Coast
  1. elisa says:

    Wonderful personal account. Reading this I felt I was part of the experience too.

  2. lpr says:

    Wonderful article..Makes one stop and think for a moment about the world around us and the help one can do. Yes, the article did make you feel part of the experience. Thank you !!!!

  3. lesley says:

    Very inspiring article and one that everyone should read to understand how wild life suffers for no fault of theirs.

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