Making Mental Health a Priority in Spill Response and Beyond

May is mental health awareness month, and even though it is now June, mental health should be something that we are aware of, and actively work towards, every day of the year. 

The pandemic has given us many lessons, but one of the most poignant lessons is that mental health is essential for overall well-being in everyday life. And mental well-being can be affected by many factors, including sickness (of ourselves or someone we care about), the loss of a loved person or a pet, the loss of a job, divorce, etc. These stressful events that can greatly impact our mental health will happen in everyone’s life. These challenging events are usually beyond our control. However, how we respond to stressful or otherwise challenging events IS within our control, even though sometimes it is difficult to believe this and may take years of practice. 

When difficult times come our way and cause us anger, sadness, and frustration, changing how we relate to and think about our emotions can have a powerful effect on our overall mental health. Instead of pushing away difficult emotions and labeling them as “good” or “bad”, if we are able to view emotions as indicators or data points and realize that we are not our emotions (“I am noticing sadness” instead of “I am sad”), this can help us be more resilient in the face of challenging times. For more on this, I encourage you to watch this powerful TED talk by Susan Davis.

When we experience difficult emotions, knowing that they won’t last forever (after all, nothing does) can be a powerful tool in helping us be in the driver seat, instead of our emotions taking over the steering wheel. Easier said than done, right?  Having the right tools for any job can help make that job easier, as is the case with mental well-being and resilience. Each person is different, so knowing what tools might help is the first step.  Tools can include practices of mindfulness, meditation, exercise, walks in nature, journaling, yoga practice, warm baths, prayer, or talking with a friend or therapist. These are just a few of many potential options that could make a difference in how you relate to challenging emotions and events, and build resiliency as well as improve mental well-being.

So where does spill response fit in all this?  Well, being involved in any type of emergency (either as a bystander or as an active participant), can be a highly stressful experience. Not only is it a stressor, but for those that are deployed, it usually means long hours day after day, and can sometimes mean exposure to animal suffering, which can only add to the overall challenge of these events. 

The OWCN recognizes that responder mental health during spills is essential for overall success of that response. By providing support and resources to wildlife responders, both before and during a response, and increasing awareness and importance of wellness, we are hoping to collectively increase our resilience and help avoid responder burnout. 

The OWCN has worked hard to incorporate awareness of the importance of mental well-being into trainings, and offers a webinar (“Trauma Resiliency”) that can be accessed any time through the Volunteer profile if you are in the Better Impact database. Additionally, one of the working groups that was formed during our last Planning Summit was the Responder Wellness Group. Since Oct. 2020 this group has been meeting regularly to develop ideas for increasing wellness tools, both before and during response. I don’t want to spoil the surprise by announcing all the cool things this group has been working on, but stay tuned!

As we slowly return to more of a “normal” post-pandemic life, let’s make sure we are all taking care of our mental health. As mentioned, there are tools that we can use to help our mental health, but also know that sometimes that is not enough and we need to reach out for help, and that is OK. Know that seeking help is a sign of courage, not weakness. We are all in this together. There are many online resources, but one place you can start is here.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or dial 911 in case of emergency.


Trail Camera Trials and Tribulations

Trail cameras, or camera traps as they are often called, are used for many purposes in the scientific community. Biologists use them in a variety of ways including to aid in observing wildlife activity, wildlife behavior, nest predation, developing population estimates, and even identifying how wildlife use different habitat types. Trail cameras are often used recreationally as well. People use them for fun on their own properties to see what wildlife are nearby, what pest species are coming around their house, and what’s eating their garden plants. Additionally, they are often used as a scouting tool by many hunters.

These cameras allow us to see a whole other side of wildlife – their quirky personalities, sun baths, eating habits, sleeping habits, and sometimes even their predatory hunts! Moments we rarely get to see unless we are extremely lucky. I’ve used trail cameras quite a few times, both for professional and personal purposes. My favorite images are those that are a sequence of photos showing an animal walking into the frame, turning their head to look at the camera, stepping toward it, and then the next few images are either into the eye of the animal, up the nose of the animal, or a combination of the two as they explore the trail cameras. Animals can hear the shutter of the camera lens, and see the glow from the flash, so they get up close and personal to investigate. Others will try to play with them. I’ve even heard several stories of bears picking them up, knocking them down, batting them back and forth between their paws and then tossing them down a hill! However, not all species react in a curious manner. Some see it as a deterrent and skedaddle as fast as they can when they hear the click of the lens or see the flash.

Within the OWCN, our mission is to provide the best achievable capture and care of oil affected wildlife, and trail cameras can aid us in accomplishing this in several ways, especially during inland responses. First, many of the species we encounter are nocturnal, meaning they are primarily active at night. However, we are often not approved for night operations during the first few days of a response. Therefore, trail cameras can be our eyes on the ground and allow us to observe what species are in the area when we are not present. Seeing what species are roaming the hot zone while we’re away, allows us to be more prepared for the types of species-specific equipment we might need including traps, nets, housing, and transport necessities. In addition to knowing what species are present, we also need to know if those individuals have come in contact with the oil. Thus, I wanted to know if I could use the trail cameras to aid in identifying whether individuals seen in the photos were oiled or unoiled. Despite my previous experiences with trail cameras, I had never used them in such a context, and therefore, I decided to launch my own study to determine if 1) I could detect crude oil on a dark colored animal during the day (such as a skunk), 2) if I could detect crude oil on a dark colored animal at night (such as a skunk) 3) if I could detect diesel #2 on a light-colored animal during the day (such as a light grey rabbit) and 4) if I could detect diesel #2 on a light-colored animal at night (such as a light grey rabbit).

Due to Covid, I conducted this study in my backyard in Sacramento using a remote-control car, skunk and rabbit pelts, wire, crude oil, diesel #2, nitrile gloves, Tyvek, t-posts and two Bushnell trail cameras. I have not yet finished this study, but I found the initial results interesting and wanted to share them.

As stated in the questions above, I had originally decided to run the study during the day and at night. I ran transects perpendicular to the front of two cameras at a distance of 1m, 2m, 3m, 4m, 5m, 6m, 7m, and 8m from the cameras. As it turns out, it was very obvious during the day if they were oiled or not, and I ended up with tons of photos due to the large number of transects.  I realized that I could pare down my transects and still get a lot out of the data. Therefore, I reorganized the study so that there were only three transects at a distance of 2m, 4m, and 6m from the cameras, and that the studies would only be conducted at night.  I eliminated the 8m transect because the pelts were not outfitted with a heat source and since the trail cameras are triggered by a combination of heat and movement the pelts were unable to trigger the camera at the 8m distance. Below are some photos showing the study design.

Study Layout (Video)

So far, I have conducted one study during the day, and two studies at night. We will focus on the two nighttime studies for this blog, so let’s test your skills! To conduct this study, I used chicken wire to create a mold. Then I placed the pelt onto the mold and attached the pelt to the remote-control car with wire. I then drove the pelt along the transect in front of the cameras at the 2m, 4m, and 6m distances. I started with 0% oiled, then 25% oiled, then 50% oiled, then 75% oiled, and finally 100% oiled. Each transect was driven at the different oiling percentages. Below, are photos of unoiled and oiled skunk pelts (with crude oil), and unoiled and oiled rabbit pelts (with diesel #2, and crude oil). Can you guess which are oiled and which are not? I’ve posted an answer key at the bottom so you can check your answers. Feel free to leave a comment on this post and let us know how you did!






As you may have experienced with the photos above, it can be difficult to tell what is oiled and what is not when looking at still shot photos of wildlife. Check your guesses against the answer key below. Was it difficult to tell which ones were oiled at the 25% oiling? If so, imagine how difficult it would be to tell if the individual in the photo was oiled if they had less than 25% oiling! Thus, based on these few trials, I believe that using trail cameras during a spill response is critical for providing us information on what wildlife are active in the spill zone. However, I don’t think we can necessarily rely on them to determine whether an individual has been affected by oil. Especially if it is a light product on a light species, or a dark product on a dark species, and they are 4 meters or further from the camera lens. I plan to run a few more trials so see if the I get the same results! If you have any questions, comments, or suggestions, please email me at


Answer Key:

A) Unoiled

B) Unoiled

C) 50% oiled

D) 75% Oiled

E) 75% Oiled

F) 25% Oiled

G) 50% Oiled

H) Unoiled

I) 25% Oiled

J) 25% Oiled

Way Down South

For this week’s blog, I’d like to highlight a region you are familiar with but perhaps not in terms of OWCN or the wildlife that is found there. Region 5, the “South Coast” region is the most urbanized region of California, having the top 3 populated counties. Recall that the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) divides the state into 7 functional regions:

  • Region 1: Northern
  • Region 2: North Central
  • Region 3: Bay Delta
  • Region 4: Central
  • Region 5: South Coast
  • Region 6: Inland Deserts
  • Region 7: Marine

Region 5 consists of the counties along the coast from Santa Barbara down to San Diego, also including the offshore islands in those areas.  

There are 13 Member Organizations in this region: 

  • Santa Barbara County
    • Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute
    • Santa Barbara Zoo
    • Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network
    • Channel Islands Cetacean Research Unit
  • Los Angeles County
    • California Wildlife Center
    • International Bird Rescue (South)
    • Marine Mammal Care Center
    • Aquarium of the Pacific
  • Orange County
    • Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center
    • Pacific Marine Mammal Center
  • San Diego County
    • Sea World San Diego
    • Project Wildlife
    • National Marine Mammal Foundation

This region tends to be drier that most of the others, resulting in more drought-tolerant species and isolated populations of the moisture-dependent amphibians.  Still, there is an abundance of amazing wildlife particularly in the non-urbanized areas.  Let’s cover the profiles of a few that I find particularly interesting.

Coast Range Newt 

This colorful subspecies of the California Newt is a Species of Special Concern endemic to the coast and coastal mountains from Mendocino County south to San Diego County.  It inhabits wet forests, oak forests, chaparral, and rolling grasslands.  This amphibian is terrestrial and diurnal as an adult but aquatic when breeding and uses the same breeding sites throughout its life.

While it is understood among wildlife rehabilitators to watch out for beaks, teeth and claws/talons, this tiny animal can actually kill you.  Adults secrete tetrodotoxin on their skin, the same toxin found in pufferfish. Whenever I hear “tetrodotoxin” I always think of Homer Simpson eating Fugu and his eventful drive home. However, the actual initial signs of toxicity are a tingling, burning and numbing sensation of the lips and tongue, followed by numbness of the face and extremities and eventually leading to death due to respiratory failure.  

Light-footed Ridgway’s Rail

This rail is one of the most endangered shorebirds in California.  Federally and State Endangered as well as CDFW Fully Protected, this bird frequents coastal wetlands from Southern California into Baja California.  

It is pretty easy to distinguish from other rails in that it is large and robust (like an athletic chicken) with a rust-colored neck and breast, barred flanks, and a long, mostly orange beak, particularly the mandible.  Still, you may not see it often because of its reclusiveness and tendency to stay hidden in the dense marsh vegetation.  When threatened it also acts like a chicken in that it often prefers to run rather than fly or swim.


Although the Ringtail inhabits all regions, it is an uncommon small mammal that is rarely seen.  This nocturnal carnivore has a special interest to me because when I first started in wildlife rehabilitation I had not known there were populations in the Santa Monica Mountains until I saw a couple that had been hit by cars along Malibu Canyon Road.  A little while after we noticed them we were fortunate to rehabilitate one at the facility I worked.  Some time later,  while searching for a Golden Eagle one evening in Malibu Creek State Park, we came across a large group of them!

The Ringtail is a peculiar looking animal that perhaps not many of you knew existed in California. They are found in riparian and rocky areas, using hollow trees or large rock landscape for cover. They are listed by CDFW as Fully Protected after their numbers significantly declined due to trapping for their pelts.  

Bald and Golden Eagles

Although less common to Region 5, both the Golden and Bald Eagles can be found here.  Both species of this magnificent raptor are listed as Fully Protected by CDFW, with the Bald Eagle also listed as State Endangered.  They are the two largest raptors in California (excluding the California Condor for those who consider that a raptor). The juvenile Bald Eagle can also sometimes be mistaken for a Golden Eagle, as they are similar in coloration.

Even though they can look similar at certain life stages, these two species differ in many ways.  The Golden Eagle frequents open foothills and mountain regions, preying on mammals; while the Bald Eagle prefers areas next to larger water sources for fish.  Haviing worked with both species, I have found that they also differ greatly in temperament.  The Golden is a very cool and collected customer that will tolerate extended periods of care and handling.  The Bald, on the other hand, is the extreme opposite, very easily stressed and one that would be difficult to rehabilitate for an extended period of time.

San Clemente Loggerhead Shrike 

This shrike is a subspecies endemic to San Clemente Island.  It is darker in coloration than other subspecies but can easily be differentiated simply by the location it is found. It frequents lowlands and foothills with open areas and scattered places for perching and surveying for prey.  I also find shrikes in general to be somewhat fascinating in how they skewer their prey on sharp objects for feeding or caching, although that may be a bit morbid.  

This bird is both Federally Endangered and a CDFW Species of Special Concern.  At one point it was believed to be the most endangered animal in North America.

Most of my time living in California was spent in Los Angeles County, for my veterinary internship, working overnight emergency and then at the California Wildlife Center.  It was where I received most of my experience with wildlife. The common species found there are often quite different from other regions, mostly due to the dry climate and their tolerance of urbanization but each and every region has an amazing diversity of species that can be appreciated.



Mr. Curtiss Clumpner is truly an icon in the oiled wildlife response industry. If you’ve been around long enough you’ve probably heard the phrase “all you need is Curt and a tent”. As a co-member of what I’d lovingly call the “Old Guard” I thought it would be interesting to highlight the history and motivation behind his singular career. This year he vacated his position on the UC Davis OWCN Management Team, so I thought he might finally have time to answer some questions. Neither Curt nor I are saying he’s retired. He’s just entering a new phase of his career. I hope those who read this blog find it interesting to get a fuller picture of what drove Curt to enter the profession, how he kept himself prepared and motivated to continue working in such a challenging field, and what his plans are as he begins Act II.

WM: What and when was your first spill response?

CC: My first “response” was the Whidbey Island Mystery Spill in Washington in 1984. I had started a Wildlife rehab program at PAWS in Lynnwood, WA a few years earlier and I volunteered at the center that was set up at a junior high school in Mukilteo and then we took some of the birds to our center. It was managed by another rehab organization. And I must admit in those days we did not know much about oil spills in Washington.

Whidbey Island Mystery Spill

Whidbey Island Mystery Spill

WM: What about spill response attracted you?

CC: Being a wildlife rehabilitator 365 days a year one of the most attractive things about spill response was that there was a start and an end. But it really came down to being one of the people who could do something when disaster struck. I wanted to be doing something not watching others. I have that reaction even in situations where I don’t have skills or training. I thought I should at least learn to be useful rather than the well intentioned volunteer under foot. Also the first spills were very chaotic and not very successful because of lack of knowledge and preparedness. I thought I could help change that.

WM: What was your favorite spill response and why?

CC: I think Punta Tombo Mystery Spill in 1991. In Argentina, unfunded, and asked to help by Dee Boersma who was working with Magellanic Penguins at a research station there. The initial team was Ken Brewer and me and later included Patty Chen-Valet and Chris Battaglia. Favorite because it was in Argentina, we were working with a new species, we had few resources, (we made a center out of a shipping container on the beach), we worked with some great students of Dee’s, and we had to essentially apply what we knew then which was not very much.

Punta Tombo Mystery Spill 1991

WM: What sacrifices did you make to have a career in emergency response?

CC: I think all wildlife rehabilitators sacrifice a lot to care for sick and injured wildlife. Long hours, little pay, the emotional toll of animals dying in many cases because of humans. With oil spill response you add being ready to go at a moment’s notice, not knowing when you will be back. It makes relationships and other commitments very challenging.

WM: How difficult was it for you to decide to leave your response job with OWCN and retire?

CC: It is always a big decision for me to change my life and retirement is the ultimate CHANGE. In work at least it has always been easier because I have left when I felt confident that the people taking my place have better skills to improve the profession of oiled wildlife response than I do. I was lucky when I left PAWS to have Jeanne Wasserman and Dr Flo Tseng ready to take the wildlife program at PAWS beyond what I ever dreamed. I think the same thing is true at OWCN. I know that all the teaming with the Member Organizations who are dedicated to making the OWCN greater than I could imagine. I will never really feel fully retired and hope to work with all the great people in oiled wildlife response again some time if the skills I can help.

WM: Would you follow this career path again?

CC: I often think about what I might have done different. I often thought about going back to school to learn more and be a better rehabilitator, but the time never seemed right. I feel incredibly lucky to have been in the right place at the right time so many times. I got to work with inspiring dedicated people around the world doing something I believed was important. I got to meet, work with, and learn from the pioneers as well as current leaders of wildlife rehabilitation and oiled response around the world. I can’t think career I would have rather have.

WM: Do you plan to respond now that you are retired and why? 

CC: I hope to. I hope to keep learning about wildlife and use the skill I have to continue to be involved in any way I can to support wildlife. I am lucky to be healthy in mind and body and want to “enjoy every sandwich” as they say.  Working or volunteering in oiled wildlife response, wildlife rehabilitation, wildlife field research, whatever I can find that is interesting and worthwhile. I am currently doing some part time planning work for OWCN and helping Deborah Jaques with her non-profit Pelican Science in monitoring brown pelicans along the West Coast, but I still dream (literally) about responses. Only time will tell.

 I am very thankful to all of the people I have worked with over the years and those who have supported my endeavors. I have learned so much from every one of them and have enjoyed the adventures we have all had together around the world.

I personally would like to thank Curt for his partnership on so many oil spill responses. We spent many long conversations (a.k.a., arguments) discussing ideas to improve our capabilities and care for wildlife better. We’ve always shared a passion for this field, and I count it a privilege to have so many great memories that include Curt. He’s been a treasured advisor and I’ve learned so much from him through the years.  Thank you Curt!

Why title this post Curt and a Tent? Way back when, while discussing what’s needed to respond to oiled wildlife, an oil spill response organization actually asked why wildlife responses require pre-existing facilities because “all you need is Curt and a tent”. Those of us involved back then have never let him forget it!

Wendy Massey

Thank Goodness for Virtual Outreach

I am certain, at this point in the pandemic, that you do not need a reminder about the challenges we’ve faced, or the lingering yearning for human interaction that many of us desire as we crawl out of isolation. But today I wanted to share thanks and praise for the technology developments that allow us to connect, albeit virtually and through small portals, on our computers or devices. 

With regard to our Oiled Wildlife Care Network training program, this past year and a half required us to transform our offerings into a completely online, virtual setting. Inherent challenges aside, we have discovered many benefits to connecting with our oiled wildlife responders located throughout our state:

  • An online engagement with 60+ new responders in February was a great way to welcome and inform our newest additions and offer direct answers to their burning questions.  This successful event confirmed that we should add this format to our engagement repertoire moving forward.

  • A virtual meet up with our advanced responders in April allowed us to review recent spill responses, practice working through our supervisor/strike team leader job aids, and reserved time to connect and discuss any pertinent topics. This accessible event solved one of our challenges, as we strive to connect with our advanced responders at least annually as they are often the first wave of response during a large incident. 

Beyond readiness, we have jumped headfirst into virtual outreach as well. Usually, springtime is loaded with outreach requests including local Davis classrooms, State Scientist Day in Sacramento, UC Davis Take your Children to Work Day, etc. As those in person events are still on hold, we have been working with teachers and students at the Pacific Charter Family of Schools: Sutter Peak Charter Academy, Heritage Peak Charter School, Rio Valley Charter School, and Valley View Charter Prep where we had the opportunity to provide some materials and lead virtual yet interactive oiled wildlife activities, followed by a brief presentation and ample Q & A time. 

In numerous sessions, we met with students in middle or high school via Zoom who all impressed our staff with their enthusiasm and insightful questions. My personal favorite moment was leading our feather drop experiment live with some middle school students, who were instructed to use a small pipette to release a few drops of water onto a clean goose feather. We had just finished explaining bird feather properties, but we all know seeing is believing, so as we instructed students to apply the drops, we heard numerous, excited exclamations of “It just rolls right off…didn’t soak in at all!”  Science sure can be satisfying. 

The students seemed to enjoy themselves during the event, and even the parents shared some encouraging words of gratitude:

“We are very thankful for all the work they do! I would have loved this experience when I was in school.”

“We love our school and the opportunities it provides. Neriah just finished a zoom class on oil spills and how they effect wildlife. She had so much fun!!!”

While the world unfurls, you may still have some students you know that could use an interactive activity or two.  The OWCN is currently working diligently to update and improve the outreach section of our website.  Our plan is to include many different activities and resources for students, teachers, and parents alike. 

But as a sneak peak, if you would like to lead an oiled wildlife activity at home, check out these resources: 

And if you have any questions, feel free to email us at

Thank you to all our responders, students and teachers who have remained as flexible as possible during these unique times.  And thank you to technology, for providing us with a pathway of connection that I never realized was so desperately needed.

Scott Buhl – Field Ops Readiness Coordinator

OWCN’s Impact in CA and Beyond

Over the past few months, Mike, Kyra and I have been working with three UC Davis graduate students – Jenny, Mikayla, and Nick – in the Environmental Policy & Management program. They are working on an exciting project assessing OWCN’s influence on oiled wildlife care throughout California and globally. Their work thus far has been phenomenal, and I wanted to take this opportunity to share some of it with you. 

In this unique Master’s program, students must complete a policy project working with a real-world client, and they chose the OWCN!

After meeting with them initially, they decided on three goals for their project:

  • An independent review of how OWCN has impacted state, national, and international efforts
  • An impact assessment of OWCN competitive grants on generating scientific information and spurring policy change
  • A gap analysis to determine what areas would be most beneficial for OWCN to improve

To complete these goals, the team undertook two main tasks:

1. Literature Review

The purpose of the literature review is to help with all three of the above goals. By searching the literature, they can identify OWCN’s reach across the globe, determine what impact our grant program is having on the literature at large compared to other funding sources, and see which areas of oiled wildlife care are covered (and not covered) in the literature.

They embarked on this daunting mission by first identifying search terms related to oil spills, current OWCN participant organizations, and current OWCN facilities. This provided them with 30 search terms, which they then ran through the Web of Science and Google Scholar.

References picked up from the searches were added to a review software program called Covidence – an unfortunate name for these current times, as Nick points out.

References were then put through an abstract screening process to determine relevance to their scope of work. The team screened a whopping 410 journal articles, and found approximately 230 that would prove pertinent to the remaining work ahead of them. Then they did what every researcher dreads – they read each paper in depth to extract the useful information. That’s 230 papers!! They then coded their key findings into a spreadsheet and are currently incorporating them into a synthesis review to verify what areas are covered by the literature and which are lacking (i.e., the gap analysis).

2. Survey

The purpose of the survey is to capture OWCN impacts that might not be represented in formal publications – things such as on-the job knowledge that Network members could have received through our trainings or documents.

The survey process was way more intense than I would have imagined. They sought out advice from experts as well as from Kyra, Mike, and I (do we not fit into that category?) on how to formulate their questions and then had to submit a draft survey (including a confidentiality agreement and distribution template) to the IRB (Institutional Review Board) to ensure it complied with UC Davis standards as well as related federal laws and international conventions. Please note that in providing input into the survey questions, we took special precaution so as not to bias the questions towards putting OWCN in a good light.

Once they received approval (expedited at that), they distributed the survey to 1,800 people around the world! Some of YOU may have even received this survey! (Please be sure to fill it out if you did!)

The distribution went out to a smattering of the population hailing from 3 different groups:

  • Oiled wildlife response groups internationally, nationally, and within CA (either within OWCN or outside of OWCN but within the oiled wildlife response community);
  • The oil industry; and
  • A random selection of the general public.

The goal of including these different groups was to assess the awareness of OWCN by a variety of stakeholders and industries from both within and outside of (but adjacent to) oiled wildlife rehabilitation, and OWCN’s impact on these groups. Responses from the general public will allow for an assessment of the general awareness of OWCN and peoples’ general attitudes towards oiled wildlife rehabilitation.

Mikayla Elder, Nick Carter, and Jenny Cribbs – our amazing Environmental Policy & Management grad student team

Although their project won’t quite be wrapping up for another several weeks, they already have some pretty fascinating preliminary findings from their literature review.

The first is that rehabilitation of oiled wildlife is controversial. We’ve heard of this before, but it was interesting to see it evidenced in the literature, and to the extent that a team from a non-oiled wildlife background could pick it up so profoundly. If you haven’t read it already, a cool paper on this topic by Laird Henkel and our own fearless leader, Mike Ziccardi, can be found here:

The second finding was that there are some real limitations and challenges when it comes to research on oiled wildlife rehabilitation and release. And this is understandable. Outside of spill response it’s nearly impossible to appropriately replicate an oiled animal study, and conducting a study opportunistically amidst the chaos of an oil spill can be hectic (to say the least). But what can we do about this? Well, this brings us to finding number three.

The third finding in the literature was an emphasis on spill preparedness. This was great to hear, since this is our emphasis as well! And this goes for everything from the response itself, back to finding number 2- being fully prepared to jump on that opportunity for research when it arises.

The fourth (but certainly not the last finding that this group will discover) was that the OWCN is the most well-recognized organization in spill response. Now, keep in mind that we fund much of the literature out there with our competitive grants program, but perhaps once the survey results are in, this effect can be teased out.

This whole project has been such a fascinating process. Every two weeks since January, we have met with Mikayla, Nick, and Jenny, and they have impressed us with their organization, insights, and progress. We can’t wait to see their final product and to share it with all of you!


Rinse and Repeat

Finding inspiration for a blog topic can sometimes be a challenge for me. Lately I’ve been mostly occupied with inventory updates, protocol revisions, and webinar development. While these are valuable projects, I’ll be the first to admit that they aren’t very “bloggable” topics. And this is the predicament I found myself in this morning…

So like writer’s block sufferers everywhere, I turned to examine my life with a magnifying glass, scouring the mundane details of my day for something worth sharing. Ah hah! Here’s something! And I’m guessing that someone out there might be able to relate. At least I HOPE I’m not alone on this. Any cat owners out there? Owners of long-haired cats? Long-haired cats who suffer from the occasional episode of intestinal distress? You probably know where I’m headed with this. In our house, we call this disastrous gastric phenomenon a… Code Brown. On the off chance that anyone DOESN’T immediately understand what a Code Brown is, allow me to explain… Cats, which are perfectly charming creatures most of the time, are not immune to the occasional bout of diarrhea. Yeah, I said it. Diarrhea. For those of us with a long-haired cat, the mere mention of the “D” word sends a shiver down our spines. That long hair, which is an otherwise endearing feline accessory, becomes a nightmare of liability and trauma in the presence of dreaded D. And that, folks, is what we call a Code Brown.

Wilder: Proof of Life—May 6, 2021

Today’s Code Brown patient was my orange tabby, Wilder. Despite his name, Wilder is a pretty easygoing dude most of the time, but during a Code Brown? No. NO. Wilder transforms into a Category 5 Furricane of poopy, howling fury. In ten plus years as a wildlife rehabilitator, I have yet to face a wild animal who is as unreasonable as a cat in need of a butt rinse. I’ve washed muskrats, 50+ pound snapping turtles, over a dozen bald eagles, and hundreds of everybody’s favorite bird—Canada geese. In all of these years of decontamination, my oiled patients have accepted their rinsing with the quiet dignity that is apparently ingrained in every species EXCEPT the domestic cat. I’m certain that Wilder’s screams of protest could be heard from at least two miles away and I’m expecting animal cruelty investigators to knock on my door any minute now. My shower curtain suffered irreparable damage in the morning’s watery carnage and I’m fairly certain that some of Wilder’s D ended up on the ceiling. The CEILING. Don’t worry about us though, neither of us holds a grudge and he’s now clean, dry, D-free, and curled up at my feet as I write this. Just don’t tell him I told you!

Speaking of rinsing, let’s take a closer look at this critical component of the decontamination process (You like how I segued there? Smooth, right?)

Most people know that dish detergent is the product of choice for removing oil from wildlife. Dawn has been the popular choice for years thanks to its efficacy, affordability, and availability, but other brands have also been tested and used successfully. The rinse is the lesser-known, but equally important portion of the decontamination process. In order for feathers and fur to be waterproof, the soap must be completely rinsed away. Rinsing isn’t complicated, but it is crucial to get it right. When roles are assigned to responders during a spill, the most meticulous among us are tasked with rinsing. Rinsing a single seabird can take upwards of 15 minutes. Assisted by a handler to restrain the animal, the Rinser must stoop, twist, and hunch repeatedly to reach every square inch of the animal’s body. Rinsing can literally be a back-breaking job. Repetitive stress injuries creep up on us when we spend hours upon hours rinsing during a busy spill. I once rinsed over 30 mallards in a single day, but I’m no where near holding the record.

A rinse station consists of a sink or platform to hold the animal, a hose, a rinse nozzle (we’ll come back to this), and a floor drain. For personal protective equipment, responders working in the rinse area wear slip-resistant boots, aprons, gloves, and eye protection. It’s the Handler’s job to safely restrain the animal being rinsed. They help position the animal to give the Rinser access to hard-to-reach areas like under the wings. They also keep ahold of the animal’s head to protect the Rinser from injury. Accidents can happen though, and I have a small scar on my left cheek from a particularly ornery Canada Goose who did not appreciate my rinsing technique. Yes—little known fact—goose bites can leave a scar. What looked like a nickel-sized hickey for a few weeks eventually healed into a pea-sized silvery scar. Cool! It was mostly my own fault. I was under the weather that day and my reaction time was dulled. I had been hunched over, rinsing the goose’s belly, when I felt him grab ahold of my face and twist. He let go, I continued rinsing, and it wasn’t until I saw the horrified look on my Handler’s face that I realized he’d left a mark. Anyway, I’m just glad I wasn’t washing Wilder that day…

If a wise old wizard were ever to impart some rinse-related wisdom, they might say something like “The Nozzle chooses the Rinser” or “One Nozzle to rule them all” or “It is curious that you should be destined for this Nozzle when its brother gave you that scar.” I’m getting carried away. The point is, the rinse nozzle is important! You can get by rinsing one or two animals with just about any nozzle, but during a big spill, you crave the most efficient tools—tools that help you work smarter, not harder. And tools that shorten the time an animal must endure a stressful procedure are highly valuable. A successful rinse nozzle must strike a balance between adequate water pressure and droplet size. Your standard kitchen sink sprayer is sufficient for rinsing a small passerine, but a densely feathered seabird is another story. For this, you would want a specialized nozzle—one that is perfectly crafted and customized. One that… doesn’t exist? Or at least, it doesn’t exist yet. Nozzles for rinsing have historically been store-bought or even snatched from the hotel showers of traveling spill responders. Some have worked better than others and everyone has their favorite.

As part of our 2020 Planning Summit, we formed a workgroup to investigate new technologies that could improve upon existing response techniques. One idea we had was to develop a rinse-aid. The concept is simple: create a device that speeds up the rinse process, thereby reducing the stress to the animal. But while the concept itself is simple enough, the engineering of such a device is quite complex. You might be surprised to learn that bird washing machines are not a brand new idea. Such a machine was invented in Europe, however the bird washing machine never caught on in the U.S. and it wasn’t a good fit for the OWCN, so we’ve continued the search. Enter the Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering Department at UC Davis. Students enrolled in the Mechanical Engineering Systems Design Project course are matched with project proposals from local businesses and other UC Davis departments. This is the OWCN’s second year participating as a sponsor for this course. With some conceptual guidance from me, the student team has been hard at work to identify and solve design challenges in the hopes that we’ll end up with a final product that can be deployed to the next big spill.

The device is still under development with an anticipated design completion in June. To greatly oversimplify the concept, we’re crafting a handheld, submersible water pump—a bird jacuzzi if you will. The self-contained pump will recirculate water from within a wash tub. This reduces water waste and ensures that the water temperature stays consistent. Guided by the Washer’s hand, the device will propel water up and through contaminated feathers. It is designed to be used either in a wash tub with soap or in a rinse tub with plain water. Our theory is that using this device in a pre-rinse tub of plain water will remove a significant amount of soap, thus reducing the overall length of time for the traditional rinse. Of course, as with any new technology, the device will need to succeed through various rounds of testing with dead and live animals before it’s given the green light for use in a spill. Nevertheless, we’re looking forward to seeing how it turns out!

Now if only I could invent a device to take care of Wilder’s Code Browns. Hey engineering students— I have a new project for you…

— Sam

Ask a Vet: Getting to know your new Care Veterinarian – Dr. Jamie Sherman

Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a wildlife veterinarian? How about what it’s like to work with giant or dangerous species? For Jamie’s first ever blog post, we asked YOU what you’d like to know about our new Care Vet.

What is your favorite land species? Marine species? 

Every time I get asked this question, I like to share a little anecdote – When I was around a year and half, my family went camping in Sequoia National Park. As my parents were packing up the car to go home, they put me in my car seat atop the campground picnic table (which also had items left out for one last lunch). All of a sudden, they heard some rustling and when they turned around they saw a bear helping itself to our lunch, right next to my car seat. My parents didn’t want to spook the bear into noticing me or knocking me off the table, so they calmly waited as the bear finished our salami sandwiches, chips and Oreos, then continued on its way. My sister who was 4 at the time watched the whole ordeal from the car with my parents, and to this day she remembers being terrified…but mostly because she didn’t want to share her Oreos. I like to think of this as the first sign that American black bears (Ursus americanus) would become an important part of my life. Since that first encounter, I’ve dedicated nearly a third of life to studying black bear populations and rehabilitating orphaned/injured bears across California. I even have a black bear tattoo! My favorite marine species is the polar bear (Ursus maritimus) because…I love bears. 

Jamie (far left) camping with her sisters in Sequoia National Park
Jamie at the San Francisco Zoo

Fun Fact #1: Jamie was born in California but grew up on the East Coast, until she moved back to California for graduate school. 

What’s the biggest animal you’ve ever worked with?

The largest animal I’ve ever worked with is also the largest animal to walk on land – the African elephant (Loxodonta africana). Did you know that African elephants can weigh up to 6 tons and stand over 11 feet tall? I had the opportunity to work with these majestic species during an undergraduate study abroad program in South Africa. As a part of this program, I worked 1-on-1 with wildlife veterinarians from the Kruger National Park to perform health assessments on African lions (Panthera leo), black rhinos (Diceros bicornis), Cape buffalo (Syncerus caffer), and of course, elephants. Don’t worry, they were all safely sleeping (anesthetized) for their exams!

Fun Fact #2: Jamie was featured on a PBS documentary entitled, “Teens Behind the Wheel.” She was named the safest teen driver, a title she still boasts about today. 

What is a usual day like for you?

One thing (of many) that I love about being a wildlife veterinarian is that there is no such thing as a “usual” day. Although every day might be a little (or a lot) different than the last, the daily tasks for an OWCN veterinarian come back to the four “R’s” – Readiness, Response, Research and Reaching out:

  • Readiness – maintaining and updating inventories of medical supplies, developing and evaluating protocols for any and all species that might be affected by oil, attending continuing education trainings in order to keep our veterinary skills fresh, participating in drills, nurturing relationships with OWCN member organizations, primary care facilities and volunteers
  • Response – deterring animals from entering oil-affected areas, safely collecting and providing first aid to oil-affected animals, diagnosing and treating concurrent diseases or injuries, washing oil-affected animals, rehabilitating animals post-wash to ensure complete return of fitness, and the ultimate goal…release
  • Research – writing and reviewing research proposals, obtaining funding for primary research, ensuring appropriate and humane care, use and treatment of any animals involved in research, including correct permitting
  • Reaching out – conducting trainings for OWCN volunteers, writing for the OWCN blog, teaching/training veterinary students, responding to media requests, publishing research

Fun Fact #3: Jamie was afraid of dogs until she was 14 years old!

What research would you love to conduct?

I love doing research because it empowers me to think of a question, figure out how to answer that question, and disseminate those results to the community. Research is an integral part of OWCN’s mission to provide the best achievable capture and care of oil-affected wildlife and I currently have a few ideas up my sleeve. I am really interested in the use of infrared/thermal imaging for evaluating waterproofing in feathered marine species AND for determining oiling status of hairless/featherless species such as amphibians and reptiles. 

Fun Fact #4: Jamie has traveled to 5 out of the 7 continents.

If you had one piece of advice for someone interested in working with wildlife, what would it be?

My best advice for someone interested in a career in wildlife is, GET INVOLVED. Find a way to shadow or volunteer with someone in the field or an organization you are interested in. And don’t be discouraged if you get a few “nos” before you get a “yes.” Your first experience “working with wildlife” may entail filing paperwork, cleaning cages, preparing diets, sweeping the floors, or just watching, but it is a foot in the door. Every opportunity is an opportunity to learn and grow. If you show respect, enthusiasm, and a good work ethic, that door will eventually swing wide open! If you are interested in hearing more about how I applied these principles to my career path, check out this Evotis article.

Jamie with her first bear patient who had a severe case of mange, but with treatment made a full recovery!

Thank you to everyone for submitting your questions! If you have any burning questions that weren’t answered, or were sparked by this blog post please leave a comment or connect with us on Facebook or Instagram!

Your new Care Vet, 


Celebrating Women in Oiled Wildlife Response – Julie Yamamoto

Julie Yamamoto is currently the Deputy Administrator for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. Her fascination with wildlife began at an early age. “As a kid I watched every episode of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, Jane Goodall TV specials, and read all the books about animals at my local library. My parents probably thought my obsession a little odd but (luckily for me) encouraged me, nevertheless. Fast forward 20 years-ish, I finished an MS in Avian Biology, then pursued a Doctorate in Environmental Toxicology from UC Davis, for which I studied pesticide impacts in raptors. Wildlife toxicology is a very cool blend of physiology, pharmacology and even ecology, and I thought I could do some good for the planet by pursuing a career in studying and trying to fix pollution issues. Once out of school, I worked for a time as a scientist at CalEPA and found it was not a good fit for me; I struggled to feel that my work was making a difference. I was fortunate to 1) realize it was not the job for me; and 2) to have been recruited by a supervisor that I knew at CDFW OSPR, Dr. Rob Ricker.”

OSPR’s mission to provide the best achievable protection of California’s natural resources by preventing, preparing for, and responding to spills of oil and enhancing affected resources really spoke to Julie’s passion for conservation, and she could not pass up the opportunity. “So, I jumped into a career in oil spill response in part because the opportunity presented itself, and it seemed exciting, but also because it allowed me to blend both my toxicology and wildlife expertise. It was also neat because most of my wildlife work had been in terrestrial systems (mainly birds) and at OSPR I had to learn about marine systems, seabirds, sea otters, etc – a whole new frontier for me!” So, in 2000, Julie was hired on with OSPR and began her career as a toxicologist supervisor. 

Seven years later, she accepted an executive appointment and has been filling that role with several different titles ever since. “I directly oversee the scientific and technical program in OSPR but also do a lot of work on fiscal, interagency coordination and legislative/policy issues. I have to say – when I was initially thinking about promotions, I had my doubts about whether I was cut out for management; but my early experience as a staff scientist with the state made me think about how important it was that the work of scientists be applied and used in decision making and policy. So that, plus some encouragement from colleagues, changed my mind. Even though I gave up the hands-on science, which was a big consideration for me, it has been a really rewarding path and I love the great variety of work I have on my plate every day. Some of the best times I can recall in my work are during big spill responses, admittedly exhausting and stressful affairs, working alongside really excellent professionals from inside and outside my organization, pushing ourselves to our limits, having each other’s backs, in pursuit of a common mission. You just can’t beat that!”.   

I asked Julie about what kind of struggles she faced as a young professional, and as it turns out she was quite lucky. Throughout her career she has been able to avoid discrimination. “I have felt, for the majority of my career, respected and able to do my work. I am aware of course that this has not been the case for a lot of women and some of my own colleagues. Still – there have certainly been times, especially starting out, when I have felt like a bit of an outsider, sort of not ‘belonging’ in the oil spill response, or even my own Department’s, culture. Also, I am a natural introvert and I think that can exacerbate feelings of “invisibleness” in certain situations.” In reflecting on what helped her overcome those things, she said “I think one of the biggest factors has always been the great colleagues that I have had. I came to be good at, and happy in, my work in large part because people around me supported me and were good teammates, mentors, and friends. Everyone feels self-doubt, fear, and frustration at some point in their jobs – having supportive people to turn to, and supporting them as well, is crucial to dealing with these feelings and to developing resilience. Also, I always focused on what my contributions could be to a specific incident or other problem, tried to bring the best science and creative thinking that I could. In other words, I tried to be very competent! And in the end, this allowed me to be a valuable contributor at work and find my place as a team member. It gave me confidence to push myself further.”  

Photo Credit: Julie Yamamoto

Other things that aided her in overcoming obstacles she faced were her persistence, dedication, and having examples of other women scientists and leaders along the way to inspire her. “Early in my career, there were not many such examples, but fortunately that’s changed for the better over the years. I hope by being where I am that I can help the women in my program and elsewhere envision themselves working at this level and beyond. As someone before me has said, ‘If you can see it, you can be it!’” In regard to what it is like to be a woman with a strong career, lots of responsibility and a family, Julie says that she has seen “definite improvements in workplace policies and cultures that promote greater diversity, the right to a respectful workplace for ALL, and accommodating the needs of various groups. I am a mom of 2 with an aging parent, so I know firsthand that family demands of all kinds are a factor for women and their careers. Workplaces with policies and investments that accommodate this reality is critical.  I was listening to a podcast about the challenges for working women during the pandemic and loved this quote: “Your job doesn’t understand you have kids, and your kids don’t understand you have a job”.  Which ties into a recent global poll of scientists I saw recently that was done by Nature and showed that there are declines in research activity across the board but most acutely for women researchers, early into their careers, with young kids.” I think this speaks volumes about the challenges working women face in their everyday lives, makes us grateful for the changes that have occurred in recent years to support working women, but also shows how much more work needs to be done to allow for the balance of work, family, and children.  


Celebrating Women in Oiled Wildlife Response – Michelle Bellizzi

Michelle Bellizzi found herself immersed in the oil spill response industry not long after she began volunteering with International Bird Rescue in the winter of 1999. Shortly after she started, she was thrown into the Luckenbach spill incident. The Jacob Luckenbach ship sank in 1953, and over the years that followed began releasing oil that was the cause of many spill responses. This was her first real exposure to the wildlife response aspect of oil spill response, and she dove in headfirst.

Being a part of the response industry has brought both challenges and rewards. She states that “the spill response industry is a very well-established and male-dominated field that prides itself on a job efficiently and effectively done, and some of hardest challenges I have experienced have been trying to explain the patient-driven processes involved in a wildlife response to folks outside of the veterinary/rehabilitation field. When we are able to achieve buy-in and respect from folks who may not have initially been interested is supporting our operations through our professionalism and expertise is a reward that keeps on giving and will help protect wildlife beyond our hands-on response efforts”. 

Despite the challenges, there have been many rewarding experiences. A few of her favorites include “working with the amazing and pointy great crested grebes in south America that survived a month on a gravel substrate, baby pelicans during a spill in Louisiana, and the magic of washing and rinsing every bird”. By her own admission, Michelle states that she became involved with oiled wildlife response, and continues to invest her time, energy, and dedication to the wildlife response industry because the rewards far outweigh the challenges.  At the end of the day, all the sacrifices are worth it because she gets to meet and work with “some of the greatest people and animals, ever, in some of the most beautiful places on earth (the far north, and the far south have been my favorites).  I love what I do because the work always involves an incredible team of people, learning, creating, innovating, and it is truly a  privilege to work with these amazing animals”. 

Michelle’s experience with International Bird Rescue, and other women she met through the spill response industry has been an incredible one. “Most of the professionals I encountered – the directors, workers, and researchers were women.  My own organization, International Bird Rescue, is celebrating our 50th year after being founded by an amazing woman, Alice Berkner, and International Bird Rescue has always attracted lots of women interested in giving back to their communities”. Her advice to others interested in getting involved and making wildlife response a part of their life is “it’s worth getting involved!”.  

Photo Credit: Michelle Bellizzi and Mike Ziccardi