Some Thoughts on Earth Day

In honor of Earth Day weekend, it’s a perfect time to reflect on our environmental stewardship efforts, both personally and where we work/volunteer. The majority of staff and volunteers at OWCN Member Organizations are already way ahead of the field when it comes to caring about our planet, and many are role models in their families, workplaces, and communities for sustainability, waste reduction, and “greening” their lives. However, it’s important for even the most conscientious environmentalists to regularly check in about new technology, changes in regulations and policies, and recommended best practices.

The inspiration for this blog post was two-fold. First, to inform everyone that the OWCN Green Response Working Group, which formed during the 2015 OWCN Summit, is still meeting regularly and working to reduce the environmental impacts of wildlife response and care activities during oil spills. Second, to provide information to the OWCN community about the implications of the recent changes to international recycled materials markets. Marie Travers wrote a thorough, thoughtful, and informative essay about the activities of our working group for Earth Day last year (click here to read that post), so I’m going to focus this on the second topic.

Many of you have likely heard in the news that China recently implemented a “recycling ban,” but details have been scarce about how that will affect recycling options at a local level. In July 2017 China announced that as of Jan 1, 2018, it would stop accepting 24 types of foreign solid waste, including plastics, unsorted paper, and waste textiles. They cited concern for human health and safety and the environment, due to the pervasiveness of contamination of the solid waste, as the reason for the ban (full article here). According to NPR, about 1/3 of materials collected as “recycling” in the U.S. get exported to other countries, with about half of the materials going to China. With the elimination of that market, many recycling collectors in the U.S. are scrambling to figure out what to do with all that solid waste, which is currently being diverted to landfills or being bundled and stored until other solutions are found.

I wanted to find out how my local recycling collectors were responding to the changes, so I contacted our 2 local landfills/recycling centers, 3 local curb-side pick-up service providers, and a local non-profit recycling center. My greatest concern was what was happening with plastics (#1-7), and the answers varied from “diverted to landfill” to “no-longer accepting” to “still accepting-receiving markets already lined up or under investigation.” Although I was relieved to learn that I could still recycle these items curbside at my residence, learning that some formerly recyclable plastics are ending up in our County landfill, and realizing that this issue is likely to grow, I feel that we can’t just hope that new markets become available to accept our recyclables. To me, the best solution is to focus on reducing, and when possible, eliminating, the amount of single-use plastic we buy and use in the first place.

Cutting out single-use plastics requires effort and an initial financial investment. The first step is identifying which single-use plastics we use. Water bottles, straws, bags, hygiene product bottles, and food containers (to-go and in the grocery store) are some of the easiest to identify. A more careful look around your home or workplace will probably reveal many others, such as plastic buckets, cleaning product containers, and children’s toys. The next step is determining which of these items we really need, and what suitable alternatives are available. The last step is procuring the alternatives and remembering to bring/use them.

Reusable item photo montage

Although many “eco” products, such as beeswax wrap, wood/bamboo utensils, glass or stainless-steel containers and straws, and cloth bags, are more expensive initially, their re-usability can often make them cheaper in the long run than repeatedly buying the plastic alternative. Furthermore, the long-term benefits of reducing plastics for human health and the health of the environment should be ample justification for making such investments. The website, Live Without Plastics offers a fantastic guide on identifying plastic types, the toxicity and safety of each plastic type, and suggested alternatives.

As we celebrate this Earth Day, please join me in taking time to assess what changes we can make in our personal lives and suggest at our workplace/OWCN Member Organization to help reduce our day-to-day use of single-use plastics. For plastics that can’t be eliminated, let’s get creative to figure out ways that we, or others, can re-use or re-purpose plastics so they don’t end up in the landfill. Finally, let’s all commit to staying current on what we can recycle at home and at work, and do our best to follow our local recycling guidelines to ensure that everything we put into the bin has the best chance of actually being recycled.

Happy Earth Day!


Colleen-Young-Monterey-Bay_Featured-Scientist*Guest blogger, Colleen Young is an Environmental Scientist for CDFW’s Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR) Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in Santa Cruz. Her primary job duties include oil spill contingency planning for sea otters and other marine wildlife, maintaining response equipment and working as part of the Wildlife Recovery team during spills.

Happy National Volunteer Week!

Did you know that 65% of OWCN’s registered responders are volunteers? That means not only do they volunteer to participate in the oil spill program, they also volunteer their time at their Member Organization.

These are the people who save the animals. They do the hard work of cleaning and feeding. They teach friends and strangers how to live beside their wild neighbors. They prepare for the disasters we hope will never happen, and are ready to take action to minimize the impacts of those disasters.  Although it varies depending on the spill, it isn’t uncommon for our volunteers to put in thousands, if not tens of thousands, of hours in during a spill response.

There are as many reasons to volunteer as there are volunteers. But the one common thread is that they do all of this not because they’re being paid, but because they believe the work is important. It means something to them, and they are taking action. There’s something special about the work people do when they’re driven by passion. It’s powerful. It changes things.

Our world would look a lot different – and a lot worse – without that spirit of volunteerism. The fields of wildlife rehabilitation and oiled wildlife response began with volunteers; with people from all sorts of backgrounds who saw the wildlife suffering from human impacts and decided to do something about it. That impulse continues to this day, reflected in the driven and empathetic people who support the mission of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network and the work of all our Member Organizations.

National Volunteer Week (April 15-21) is our collective opportunity to celebrate the act of volunteering. It’s also a chance to attempt to demonstrate how absurdly grateful we are to the volunteers who are already working on our community’s behalf. Fireworks scare the animals, and really can’t be seen by all the OWCN volunteers (who are spread across the entire state of California), so we had to come up with something a little different. We thought instead we’d shine a light on a few of the people who are making a difference across the state.

If you find yourself inspired and want to make a difference by volunteering, we would love to have you! If you already work or volunteer for one of our Member Organizations, just ask your supervisor to help you register. If not, the first step is to decide which OWCN Member Organization you’d like to get involved with. You can find a map and list here, on the OWCN website. Each organization has its own application process, which you should be able to find on their website (linked on that list). If you have any questions or run into trouble, you can contact the OWCN Management Team by emailing owcn AT 


In honor of National Volunteer Week, we asked our member orgs to nominate a volunteer who deserved a special shout-out for their hard work and contributions to the Oiled Wildlife Care Network and the overall well-being of wildlife. Here are some of their nominations:

Terri Oba
(volunteer for 15+ years)

Her love for wildlife rehabilitation began as a wildlife volunteer at the Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center in Huntington Beach. She was always drawn to avian patients, particularly the seabirds—and seabirds quickly became her specialization. You could even call it a passion!

She currently volunteers at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. She started in 2010 as an Exhibit Interpreter in the Education Department, and is now in the Husbandry Department working with Magellanic penguins.

Terri on why she loves being a volunteer on the OWCN team:

“It gives me such an amazing opportunity to be a part of an incredible team. It is truly an honor to work with wildlife. We are making a difference!”


© The Marine Mammal Center

(volunteers for 7 years)

Wife-husband duo Sue & Rusty volunteer with two OWCN member organizations: they started with The Marine Mammal Center in 2009 and volunteer in multiple departments including rescue, education and animal care. Their participation with Peninsula Humane Society’s Wildlife Rehab Department began in 2016. Sue completed her Wildlife Internship in 2017 and will be mentoring new interns as well as advancing her skills with intake and care this year. Rusty plans on completing his internship this year.

Their love and curiosity of wildlife drove them to volunteer their time with OWCN, TMMC, and PHS.

Sue & Rusty on why they love being a volunteer on the OWCN team:

“In addition to fulfilling our desires to be lifelong learners, we also feel like we are doing our small part to set the example to be the change while making a difference for wildlife.”

Jen Levine
(volunteer for 8 years)

Jen Levine has been volunteering with Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute (CIMWI) since 2008 and has served as a seasonal employee since 2011. CIMWI serves both Ventura and Santa Barbara counties in California as a marine mammal rescue, rehabilitation, research and education non-profit.

In 2010 Jen became an OWCN volunteer through CIMWI as a member organization. Her first experiences rescuing wildlife were as a child in the park across the street from her house. When she would find injured birds and squirrels she took them to the local wildlife rehabilitation center. When she was 10 years old, she took a trip to the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago where she first saw and fell in love with California sea lions, which immediately became her favorite animal! Jen now manages stranding response as well as animal care and health for CIMWI.

Jen on why she loves being a volunteer on the OWCN team:

“I enjoy participating in OWCN conferences and drills to further my preparedness and skill sets to help oiled animals of all species should the need arise.”


First OWS – A Success!

Following up on Nancy’s blog post from last week, I wanted to post a slide show with some of the pictures from our first Oiled Wildlife Specialist training from the past two days.

In general, we felt it went really well! We all learned a lot, but as usual, there is lots of room for improvement for our next Specialist training.  We won’t be going “back to the drawing board”, but I know that both within the Field Ops and Care Ops groups, we will be doing some tweaking to try to make the next OWS training the best it can be.

A big thank you to everyone that played “guinea pig” at our first training.  We so appreciate your time, enthusiasm, and helpful comments for making future trainings better.  We also want to thank all our invited instructors that helped add richness and expertise to the training.

So as promised, here are a few photos.  Enjoy, and hope to see you at a future OWS!



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First Oiled Wildlife Specialist Training Next Week!


OWCN Training Program

As you may remember the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) launched a new training program in the Fall of 2016. Since then, we have been working hard to develop the program so that it meets the stated goals of:

1) Develop a team of oiled wildlife responders that have the knowledge, skills, experience, and attitude (cohesion, trust, confidence in each other and the team) to provide the best achievable capture and care during an oiled wildlife response.

2) Promote enthusiasm and continued engagement and commitment of individuals from all OWCN member organizations.

3) Train each individual to the level which they have set for themselves, to the best of their potential and interest.

Over the past two years, over 550 personnel have completed the “Core” webinar series and OWCN staff have traveled all over California presenting one day in-person Basic Responder Trainings to over 250 people. What this means is that OWCN and our Member Organizations are ready to move on to the next level up on the training pyramid!

So we are looking forward to the big debut of the Oiled Wildlife Specialist Training next week. This level is a two day in-person workshop for individuals with moderate to advanced experience working with the species cared for by their Member Organization. It is intended to give participants a deeper understanding of spill response operations, broaden the applicability of responders’ existing skills and increase consistency between responders. For further information regarding future Oiled Wildlife Specialist training opportunities, please refer to the “Opportunities” section of your OWCN Responder Profile.

The workshop has been organized into five specialization areas for personnel to choose from:

  • Recovery & Hazing Specialist: Field Operations
  • Field Stabilization Specialist
  • Intake & Processing Specialist
  • Pre-Wash Care Specialist
  • Cleaning & Conditioning Specialist

We are pleased to announce that the first Oiled Wildlife Specialist training is going to be well-attended with at least one responder from all five California Department of Fish & Wildlife regions that represent ten different Member Organizations! We are expecting 27 participants: 9 for Field Operations, 5 for Field Stabilization, 5 for Intake & Processing, 3 for Pre-Wash Care and 5 for Cleaning & Conditioning.

We are looking forward to seeing everyone next week and finally launching the Oiled Wildlife Specialist training!

Fort Madison Community Hospital Cheer Card


Thoughts from the road…

As I pack up our reliable 1997 F-250 diesel truck and begin the journey home along Interstate 5 north, I am filled with gratitude for being part of another great OWCN training.

Nancy, Curt, and I taught our Basic Responder Training course yesterday, hosted graciously at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center. Participants were engaged, enthusiastic, and, best of all, represented a diverse collection of our Southern California member organizations.  We had 30 folks from 8 different organizations, including:

  • Channel Islands Cetacean Research Unit
  • International Bird Rescue
  • Aquarium of the Pacific
  • Marine Mammal Care Center – Los Angeles
  • Pacific Marine Mammal Center
  • SeaWorld San Diego
  • UC Davis Wildlife Health Center
  • Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center

This diversity also provided us with a few veteran responders with lots of spill experience to share, sitting alongside many newcomers who have yet to respond to a spill but are eager to help (should they be needed). One participant shared with me after the class that she found spill response a bit intimidating, but that fear was alleviated via this course and that she was now ready to lend a hand.

While everyone in that room hopes this new knowledge will never need to be used, it does provide me great comfort to know that we have so many skilled, passionate, and reliable responders throughout our state ready to jump into action.

Thank you Pacific Marine Mammal Center for hosting, and thank you to all the participants for your support.



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.


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)