Spill Drill 2018: Don’t pick up oiled wildlife


Photo Credit: David Yamamoto / Ventura County Star


*Disclaimer: Oil spill readiness and response requires quickness and coordination which is only achieved through intensive planning and practice. Drills offer the opportunity to test out the planning and to practice a response. The OWCN organizes and implements a drill every year to review protocol with our member organizations. This is only a drill. 

In every response, the news is plastered with photos of kind, well-meaning folks who have put themselves at risk by attempting to rescue oil-covered wildlife.  In situations like this we always remind folks to keep themselves safe by not approaching the animals – but what is the danger, really?

Photo Credit Lara Cooper / Rueters

Photo Credit Lara Cooper / Rueters

As you are probably aware, approaching a wild animal inherently carries with it a level of risk. Wildlife view humans as a threat, and even shy species will do what they can to protect themselves if they feel they cannot get away. This is especially true of debilitated animals, which may tend toward aggression because they are less able to run away or hide. In addition, some species can carry pathogens that affect humans, and represent a disease risk.  Oiled wildlife responders have extensive training and experience that prepares them to approach and capture wild animals without putting themselves in harm’s way.

As a side note, any time someone (whether trained or not) attempts to capture a wild animal and fails, that animal will be more wary and difficult to catch the next time an opportunity arises.  In the case of oiled birds, which are usually already suffering from reduced buoyancy, hypothermia, and dehydration, if they return to deeper water in an escape attempt, they may not be able to make it back to land again. So while it is very hard to see an animal in need and remain at a safe distance, in the long run patience benefits the animal as well as any humans involved.

Photo: Animal Tracks, Inc (via Twitter)

Photo: Animal Tracks, Inc (via Twitter)

However, even if a person is able to capture and restrain an animal without injury, the oil still poses a significant risk.

Oil is actually made up of an incredible number of chemicals, many of which do not play nice with the human body.  Some of these toxic compounds are easily absorbed through the skin, while others evaporate and cause issues when they are breathed in.

The effects of these toxins are variable, but there can be both short and long term health impacts when unprotected people come into contact with petroleum products.  Here’s an excellent article on this subject through Discovery News.

Oiled wildlife responders protect themselves with many hours of training. They also use specialized protective equipment such as petroleum-resistant coveralls, gloves, goggles, and boots, all so they can prevent the oil toxins from being absorbed through their skin or accidentally ingested.  Specialists monitor the air quality, so that responders can take appropriate respiratory precautions when necessary.  Even with all this protection, our responders must be constantly vigilant so they do not accidentally expose themselves to the petroleum.

OWCN health and safety class graduation ceremony

OWCN health and safety class graduation ceremony

So while we want your help to report oiled wildlife (if you see anything, call the hotline (1-877-UCD-OWCN) to report ASAP), more than anything we want you to be safe.  Please do not enter oil-affected areas, and do not attempt to rescue oiled wildlife!  Remember:

  • Regular clothing and latex gloves are not effective barriers to petroleum
  • Potential routes of oil exposure include absorption through the skin, ingestion, inhalation, and injection
  • Contact with larger amounts of petroleum and/or for longer periods of time increases the amount of toxins a person might absorb, but a long contact time is not needed for toxins to absorb
  • Breathing in petroleum fumes can also be dangerous, and
  • We do have teams of professionals out in the field, and we do follow up on reports we receive via the Oiled Wildlife Hotline (1-877-UCD-OWCN)


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