A Blast From the Past

While most of us have been dodging raindrops the last few weeks, Tim Williamson has been refurbishing the RAT Rig. What may you ask is the RAT Rig? It is the old Recovery And Transportation (RAT) trailer. After the arrival of the spiffy new MASH trailer (Mobile Avian Stabilization Hospital) for Field Stabilization and Sprinter van for Wildlife Recovery, the RAT Rig spent a few years languishing with minimal attention.

Now that the OWCN is moving inland, the RAT Rig has gained a second life…sort of like our rehabilitation animals. With its relatively small footprint, yet room to treat and house a few dozen animals, we think it will be the perfect size for setting up in canyons, along river banks or other tight spots.

So here are a few photos to re-introduce you to the RAT Rig

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While we always hope for “NO SPILLS!”, if one occurs we know that the RAT Rig is ready for action.


The Value of Science

keep-calm-and-love-science-287Science (noun): the state of knowing; knowledge as distinguished from ignorance or misunderstanding.

Over the past week or so, I have started (and restarted) this blog post numerous times as the news cycle has ebbed and flowed. Potential changes to regulations, laws, and personnel at key Federal agencies associated with the new US Administration have created great uncertainty regarding the future of environmental efforts.  No matter what your political leanings, I think everyone can agree that we are living in particularly tumultuous times.

One significant issue that has struck me deeply in the past several months, however, is the great scrutiny/debate over the value and role of science and scientific findings. These efforts (if valued and used correctly) can help to foster legislative and/or societal change for the better; if not, decisions can be made without factual support and are thereby more prone to being swayed by public opinion or conjecture. Stephanie blogged last week on how citizens can help in this effort but, more broadly, it seems as if scientists are embattled on a number of fronts – particularly on environmental issues.

IMG_4207For wildlife conservation (and specifically oiled wildlife response and welfare), much of what we do and know is based on best available information and not hard data, as it can be exceedingly difficult to design studies that can collect and interpret information necessary to answer our key questions. During oil spill responses, the emergent nature of the work necessitates rapid decisions as well as huge allocations of resources. The animals we receive also often have life-threatening health issues that require immediate intervention. Taking the time needed to thoroughly consider appropriate projects, as well as finding the resources (people, time, funding) to conduct the work, is challenging at best.

One of the aspects I am most proud of within our California program (in addition to our wonderful partners!) is the explicit mandate to provide “best achievable” capture and care to those animals in our charge. This legislatively-stated goal further requires us to support a research and technology development program that demands we explore better ways of responding to animals in crisis, as well as having a greater understanding of how oil can affect wildlife species. Since 1996, the OWCN has been proud to fund more than 130 scientific projects with external collaborators, as well as conduct numerous studies led by OWCN Management Team staff. The information gleaned from this work has helped us to better develop treatment protocols, design modular and permanent equipment/facilities, and help to support understanding of long-term ecosystem-level effects that spills can cause.

sea turtle 3While we collectively have a long way to go to understand the complexity of petroleum impacts on environmental systems, recent findings from the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010 have significantly helped to increase this knowledge pool. As part of the Damage Assessment phase of the spill, an extremely in-depth look at the multitude of direct and indirect effects on all parts of the food chain has been published and is available at NOAA’s Gulf Spill Restoration site, with more detailed information found on the DoI’s Administrative Record site. Additionally, publications are now starting to make their way into the scientific literature detailing the impacts specifically to higher vertebrates, specifically birds, marine mammals, and sea turtles. Specifically, a special edition of Endangered Species Research was released just this week containing 20 publications detailing the impacts to mammals and turtles, with a special issue of a prominent toxicology journal to soon detail work on birds.

Thus, while the value of science and scientific inquiry may be debated on a broader level, the efforts of the OWCN and others directed at a more complete understanding of mitigating the impacts of oil should accidents occur cannot be minimized. We, as a program of UC Davis, are committed to continue to do the best investigative work possible to minimize animal suffering as well as more fully understand both the direct as well as indirect effects that spills can create. Due to the forethought of California legislators and voters, the support of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, and the indefatigable efforts of our partners within the OWCN Member Organizations, we collectively can continue to drive this profession forward for the betterment of our wildlife.



Counting Penguins for Science

I discovered a love for citizen science projects a few years ago, when a friend got me hooked on Snapshot Serengeti. After creating an account on their website, I had the chance to click through trail cam photos from a national park and conservation area in Tanzania. My goal was to find, identify, and count the animals captured in those photos to help with a population survey and create the dataset that would support many studies–from how and where animals move and cluster in the park, to how that changes over time.


Snapshot Serengeti features many amazing captures, like this one, on their blog.

As bored grad students know, many trail cam captures are duds, when the camera is triggered by swaying grass or other non-animal movement. But every few photos I’d catch a glimpse of Tanzanian wildlife in their natural environment: elephants, antelope, lions, and so many more. Oh, and wildebeests. So many, many wildebeests.   I don’t remember much of that weekend, it is lost in a fog of wildebeests and concentration, but I do know I was on a mission to find and identify my very own aardwolf capture.

Since that weekend, I’ve come to love and support many crowd-sourced science projects (many of which I discovered through Zooniverse, a platform for participants and researchers interested in crowd-sourced data collection projects. Scientific American also keeps a running list of projects). You can spy on penguins, characterize bat calls, and map the hills of Mars. You can measure hurricanes, track snow cover, and transcribe nautical logs to advance our understanding of our weather and climate. You can participate in amazing and important things.


Penguin Watch is a currently running project similar to Snapshot Serengeti.

In this age when science is so often viewed as opaque, dated, scary, or irrelevant, citizen science gives me great hope. We need skilled science communicators, and there are many people out there doing great work–including organizations and individuals right here in the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. But citizen science goes one step further. In addition to providing another way to learn about how science is conducted, it actually asks people to participate and invest in real, current research projects. Making science so accessible and allowing volunteers to have such an important role in data collection lets people from all walks of life experience what scientists already know: how great science is, and how exciting it can be to contribute to humanity’s collective knowledge.

So check it out! And then get everyone you know to check it out too.

You won’t be sorry you did.



We Do It for the Animals, but the People are the Key

I am sure that you all appreciate the irony that the need for us to “rescue” wildlife most often comes from human impact on the planet and our patients. And I think my bias, like many “wildlife” people, may be a bit in favor of animal’s vs. people in many situations. While I am not one to claim that I have a special relationship with wild animals, I do very much value the opportunities I have had to work closely with them and get to “know” them just a bit. Observing them in rehabilitation to monitor their progress as well as in the wild has helped me better understand their needs and care for them while in our charge. Having said that, there is little I enjoy more than meeting other rehabilitators – especially ones that come from far away places that have different species and different challenges.


Valentina with marine mammal herding board

What I enjoy most about oiled wildlife response and wildlife rehabilitation is that there are always new challenges, new ways to look at old challenges, and opportunities to learn different ways to overcome them. So I was especially pleased and excited to hear from an old friend named Sara Laborde last fall. Sara was the coordinator of the oiled wildlife program in Washington state many years ago, and I had the privilege to work with her in developing parts of that program. Sara was a rising star who moved from there up through the WA Department of Fish and Wildlife over the years until I lost track of her.  Recently, I found she was working for the Wild Salmon Center, an international conservation organization based in Portland, Oregon.

A few months ago I got an email from Sara saying that her program was hosting several Russian partners who were interested in learning about the oiled wildlife system during a brief layover in San Francisco before returning home. Of course, the OWCN team and I were excited to have an opportunity to meet with them and and learn more about oiled wildlife preparedness in Russia, as well as to show them San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center and our mobile equipment in Davis. I was especially enthusiastic when I found out they were from Sakhalin Island, and had been involved in an oiled wildlife response just over a year ago.


Members of the NGO Boomerang collect oiled birds during a spill in Sakhalin Island, Russia

They arranged for a translator to make the most of our time together, and Kyra, Greg Frankfurter, and I (with International Bird Rescue’s Michelle Bellizzi and Isabel Luevano) arranged to meet the Mezentsevas in Cordelia. It turned out that I had actually met them a number years ago when they attended an IBR training that Barbara Callahan and I had done on behalf of Sakhalin Energy in Yuzhno, Sakhalin, a number of years ago. So for the next several hours we all talked about the OWCN; its partnerships with universities, NGOs, and governmental agencies; and the California oiled wildlife response system, and contrasted it to the system on Sakhalin. Their NGO, named Boomerang, is involved in a number conservation initiatives including marine mammal strandings, so Greg did double duty with his experience at The Marine Mammal Center and oiled mammal response.

For me it was particularly nice to hear how some of the plans we had work on had turned out. Both the things that worked as we envisioned as well as those that did not in their recent spill.


Russian visitors observing bird treatments by IBR Staff

By the end of our meeting it was well past dark and we all pledged to keep in touch and help where we could, exchanging information about equipment, supply sources and protocols. Once more I was reminded of what a small but dedicated community you and I can be very proud to be a part of.

Happy New Year



There’s an App for that…

As Christine shared via our last post, one of our 2017 goals is to implement OWRMD into wildlife spill response operations.  Having electronic medical records is a huge step forward for both rapid and efficient information flow, as well as an immediate tool for analyzing our processes and methods in a quantitative fashion.

To ensure that our care side of operations doesn’t have all the fun, our OWCN field operations staff have been working with our colleagues at the Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) in developing and refining a smart phone application that will aid in starting that electronic data gathering process from the moment we collect oiled wildlife.  This new tool will eventually replace our paper data forms, allowing wildlife recovery responders to head out with essential capture equipment and iPhones preloaded with the Wildlife Recovery application.


The key pieces of information that can be gathered via the Wildlife Recovery app include:

  • GPS coordinates
  • Type (Bird, marine mammal, herptile, etc)
  • SubType (Pelican, Gull, etc)
  • Additional notes (such as species, if known)
  • Location Description (extra info regarding location of capture)
  • Condition (alive or dead)
  • Photos
  • Scanning QR Codes

That last piece of information may seem odd (aren’t QR codes used to scan my items at the grocery store?), but in fact we are working with them as unique identifiers for our animal patients.  So essentially we can gather key info, snap a photo, and scan a QR code pre-printed on a sticker that we in turn can attach to the carrier.  Then, upon arrival at the primary care facility, care staff can scan the QR code which will automatically identify that animal and connect it with all that key info, GPS coordinates and photos within the OWRMD system.  Pretty cool, huh?

But wait…there’s more.  On top of digitalizing the data gathering process from start to finish, it also provides an easy way to track our efforts through the app.  As recovery responders search beaches or ravines for oiled wildlife, the app tracks their movements, including any points in which they collect oiled wildlife or make notable observations.  This creates a track map that is very helpful in summarizing our efforts and identifying any gaps in coverage.


And while there is much more to share on this, the details will have to wait until we finalize the application and begin training responders on its use in the field next year.

Figured a futuristic post would fit well as we head into the future year of 2017.  Hope you all have a wonderful last few days of 2016!


The Miracle of OWRMD

Unlike my six-year-old, whose list to Santa is comprised mostly of toy weapons, my wishes for the New Year are less tangible. Less war, less poverty, less hunger, less deforestation, fewer emerging diseases, fewer extinctions, lower carbon emissions, no oil spills . . . . you get the idea. Given the current state of the world, it would probably take a miracle for any of those wishes to come true. But one miracle I am counting on is the promise of OWRMD!

Many, many years ago, Mike realized that an electronic medical record keeping system would be a huge boost to animal care during a spill response. After a LOT of work, angst, pain, blood, sweat, tears, and electronic device purchases, we are close to having a truly game-changing system in OWRMD, thanks to Devin Dombrowski and the Wild Neighbors Database Project (a non-profit that is already doing great work providing a free online medical records option for wildlife rehabilitators – follow the link to learn more or to donate).

OWRMD is a medical records database system that is purpose-built for the care of animals during an oil spill response, and it has been worth waiting for.  OWRMD is not exactly the same as the WRMD that is currently used in dozens of rehabilitation centers, but it is closely related. Many operations will be the same, and if you are comfortable with WRMD, getting comfortable with OWRMD will be a snap. It’s intuitive and has a lovely interface design, so even those who are not used to electronic medical records will become accustomed to it in no time.

It’s not quite finished yet, but for those of you who already use WRMD, you can understand how great a tool OWRMD will be. In the coming months, look out for opportunities to learn more about OWRMD, such as participating in drills or specific training sessions. At first, OWRMD will be for birds only, but we will be integrating other species into it as we move forward.

This holiday season, be safe, be healthy, be happy  . . . . and be thankful for whatever miracles come your way!



Wildlife Summit: Next Steps

SummitAssault_logo_wCircleAs Curt and Chris wrote about in recent blogs, the first ever OWCN Wildlife Planning Summit was a true success, with about 50 people from 20 Member Organizations participating.  So, what are the next steps?  Well, since the Summit ended, we have accomplished several things, including: summarizing the discussions of the 5 workgroups that were established during the Summit, identifying of Chairs that will be responsible for ensuring that goals are met and timelines are adhered to, and developing a set of guidelines that will serve as an aid to the workgroup Chairs.

Now that we have everything in place, it is time to officially launch our post-Summit work!  As part of that, we would like to reach out to the entire Network to invite participation in the process. During the Summit, the 50 participants signed up to be a part of one of the workgroups.  In addition, other names were written down of people (not attending) that were thought to be important to include in the process. But of course, not everyone from the Network was at the Summit, so if you are interested in helping, now is your chance to sign up!

Before jumping in, you need to know that there are several levels of involvement depending on how much time you are willing to (and able to) commit:

Low – Willing to provide comments/review 1-2 products that come out of the workgroup.

Medium – Willing to provide comments/review all products that come out of the workgroup.

High – Participation in at least monthly conference calls and assisting in developing and reviewing workgroup products.

If you have interest and time, please contact the Chair/Chairs of the workgroups listed below (either directly to them via email or to us at owcn@ucdavis.edu and we will forward) to offer your assistance, and specify what level of involvement you are willing to provide. Remember, it is up to each Chair(s) to approve workgroup participants (we obviously don’t want 250 people participating in monthly conference calls!).

Below is a list of each workgroup, the Chair or co-Chairs, and a brief summary of issues/goals that each break-out group identified during the Summit. However, the final list of goals will be up to each group, once they begin their work:

  1. Avian Protocols, Chair: Michelle Bellizzi
    • Development/clarification of protocol use requirements for individual oiled birds.
    • Species-specific protocols for how best to care for inland animals.
  1. Initial Response, Chair: Jennifer Levine
    • Development of systems and practices that can help lead field responses for initial (first 24 hrs) operational period of a spill.
  1. Green Response, co-Chairs: Dru Devlin & Marie Travers
    • Development of conservation-oriented guidelines for oil spill response (such as carpooling & re-use/recycling programs like using re-usable water bottles and coffee cups).
    • Resources that can be used to prevent water waste and low-energy pool technology such as Eco-pumps for bird pens during a spill response.
  1. chain-of-custody-summit-10-16img_0835Marine Mammal Documentation, co-Chairs: David Bard & Barbie Halaska
    • Development of a more user-friendly and consistent ID numbering system.
    • Work out Chain of Custody what-ifs.
  1. Facility Activation, co-Chairs: Tamar Danufsky & Jody Westberg
    • Clarify OWCN facility activation process, including levels of activation.
    • Define activation terms for facility and what does “activation” entail.
    • Develop facility activation plan checklist based on level of response.
    • Share existing facility response/changeover plans.

As always, please let us know if you have any questions, and thank you in advance for helping to improve OUR Oiled Wildlife Care Network!