Spill Drill 2018: Care Operations Overview


*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.

Ultimately, our goal during a response is to mitigate the suffering of animals affected by an oil spill and reduce the spill’s impact on a region’s fauna as much as possible.  See below for an overview of care operations following an oil spill, which we will be adhering to in response to yesterday morning’s spill off the coast of Point Loma:

Field Operations, which includes efforts such as deterring animals from entering the spill zone or capturing animals that have been oiled, is perhaps the most visible portion of what we do to meet this goal.  The other half of the equation is Care Operations, which is everything that happens after an oiled animal is captured.


An oiled brown pelican being restrained prior to receiving a rehydration treatment.

Oiled animals are usually hypothermic (cold) and dehydrated, and debilitated in other ways as well.  Often, we begin to address these basic issues at or near the capture site, in a unit called Field Stabilization.  The goal of Field Stabilization is to provide heat, fluids, and basic medical care in order to stabilize animals that otherwise would not be strong enough to survive transport to a facility where more extensive care can be provided.

The care facility where animals are transported once they are stable enough to be moved is called the Primary Care Facility, and this is where the rest of rehabilitation process takes place. Where Field Stabilization can be thought of as Emergency Medical Services, the Primary Care Facility operates more like a hospital.  Some animals may need to spend several weeks in care before they are ready to be returned to the wild, and they’ll do that at the Primary Care Facility.


An Intake Exam team examines an oiled Surf Scoter

When an oiled animal arrives at the Primary Care Facility, it receives an Intake Examination, which is a thorough medical examination.  The Intake Examiner will note the animal’s species and physical traits, along with details of its condition such as any injuries and the extent of visible oiling.  At this time, the Processing team will also take a photo and collect an oiled feather sample for documentation purposes.

Depending on the animal’s strength and physical condition, it will then spend time with caretakers in Pre-Wash Care.  The goal in this area is to help the animal recover from the damage and stress caused by oiling, beaching, capture, and transport, and to prevent any further damage.  Animals may spend several days in this area before they are strong enough to undergo a Wash.


A Wash Team in action during the Stuyvesent

In the Wash area, teams remove oil and any other contaminants (which includes any detergent or pre-treatments used to loosen and remove the oil from the feathers).  Wash is an extremely taxing process, and requires personnel with a great deal of experience to manage the many factors that contribute to success.  The animal must be restrained safely, kept warm, feathers need to be protected from breakage and other damage, and the entire process must be both quick and thorough.  But when done well, the wash can be a fulfilling and dramatic part of the process, resulting in a squeaky clean animal that is ready to tackle the final stage of the rehabilitation process.


Western grebes in outdoor pools during the Pre-Release Conditioning phase.

That final stage is called Pre-Release Conditioning. While the wash removed the oil from the animal’s fur or feathers, there’s still some work to be done. The animal will need to preen or groom things back into place in order to restore any waterproofing that was lost during oiling and the subsequent wash.  In addition, most animals need time to gain weight and heal from any toxic effects they suffered from their exposure to the petroleum product.

Once an animal has moved through all of these stages of care, and is healthy, strong, and oil-free, it is ready to be Released back into the wild. It will receive one last veterinary exam, a federal band, and sometimes a GPS tracker (if it is to be part of a post-release study).  If the spill has been cleaned up enough, the animal can be returned to where it was found; otherwise, another appropriate spot will be chosen.

This is the great moment oiled wildlife responders work for, when animals that would have died are able to return to their lives and resume their rightful place in the natural world.


A surf scoter release during the Cosco Busan oil spill response.


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