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.
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…