OWCN’s Impact in CA and Beyond- Final Project Update!

Back in May, I blogged about an awesome project being carried out by a team of UC Davis graduate students – Jenny, Mikayla, and Nick – in the Environmental Policy & Management program

They had embarked on an assessment of OWCN’s influence on oiled wildlife care throughout California and globally, with their three main research objectives being:

  1. Understand the overall impact that the OWCN has had on state, national, and international efforts to focus on oiled wildlife actions
  2. Explore the impact of the OWCN’s competitive grants program on developing information that has led to policy changes
  3. Develop a gap analysis to identify areas where additional OWCN focus would be best

At the time of the previous blog, the team was just finishing up an extensive literature review, and was about ready to send the survey they had created out to oiled wildlife response groups, the oil industry, and the general public. You can read about their project development process here.

Well, it has been only a couple of months and not only have they finished their literature review and received their survey results, but they have interviewed competitive grant recipients as well and have created a complete report, including a video final report for the OWCN on their findings and recommendations, which can be viewed here:

And with that, the work is now in the hands of the OWCN to assess and incorporate these recommendations into our future efforts to continue to improve the best achievable capture and care of oiled wildlife.


A jacuzzi for oiled birds?

In this blog from May, we explored the finer details of the rinse process and I gave a sneak peek at a new device being designed for the OWCN. That device, designed by engineering students from UC Davis, is now complete.

Introducing the Recirculating Wash System, or as we sometimes call it, the Jacuzzi for Oiled Birds:

The pump and battery housing is contained on the left while the animal is washed within the tub on the right. The device is designed to work with a range of wash tub sizes.

First, let’s get into some background on this collaboration. This is the Oiled Wildlife Care Network’s second year sponsoring projects with School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering. OWCN management team member, Jennie Hawkins, discovered this excellent opportunity for collaboration and worked with the first teams to design projects such as a net gun and hazing line launcher. We submit project proposals detailing the need for a custom device to accomplish or improve a task related to our mission of providing hazing, capture, and care to oil-affected wildlife. Student teams then select the project they are most interested in and work with their sponsor throughout the semester to develop a design. In non-COVID years, the students build a physical prototype, but without access to their lab, the past two years have concluded with written reports instead.

I worked with the student design team over the spring semester to help guide them through the process of developing such a niche device. Our objective was to develop a handheld device that can be operated by the bird washer in a wash tub. The device will propel water in a controlled direction beneath the surface of the water, similar to a jacuzzi tub jet. The purpose of such a device is to significantly cut down on both the duration of the wash process and the physical exertion of the human washer.

We developed the following design criteria to meet our needs for safety while ensuring implementation of the device would be practical.

  • The concentration of soap in the water and the water temperature is important to the decontamination process, so ideally the handheld jet will recirculate the wash tub’s water rather than introduce new water.
  • The device must be operational underwater and in the presence of soap and petroleum oil.
  • The device should be able to be operated by one hand, ideally either right or left.
  • The device should be relatively quiet (conversation volume or lower) so as not stress our patients.
  • The device should be able to be taken apart and cleaned as needed.
  • The device intake should have a grate to keep feathers from clogging it since loose feathers will occasionally be in the wash tub. The operator can occasionally manually remove feathers built up on the grate.
  • The device must be safe for both the operator and the bird. No trauma or electrocution hazard.
  • The device should be rechargeable or have a waterproof battery compartment or plug-in (if feasible).
  • The device should be able to run for at least 1 hour on a single charge or have a replaceable battery.
  • The output of the device should have enough pressure to flush water through feathers, but not so much that it would cause discomfort or injury (less than 60 PSI).
  • The device should generate a minimum amount of bubbles, as bubbles decrease visibility during the wash process.

Throughout the design process, the students identified solutions to meeting each of these criteria. The total weight of the device is under 30 pounds, meaning that it can easily be deployed to a spill along with our other response equipment. It operated with a rechargeable battery which can run for at least an hour on a single charge. The design can also be adapted to plug-in for power. Using a flow simulation process (that is way over my head), the students also managed to ensure that the device would attain our desired water pressure of 40-60 PSI.

While the design was initially intended to compliment the wash process in a tub with detergent, we also came up with additional potential uses along the way. From the beginning, we anticipated the potential of having excess bubbles from the detergent. Afterall, there’s a reason you don’t want to add suds to a jacuzzi! However, we are still optimistic that the bubbles generated by the system will be manageable. If they prove to be overwhelming, we propose using the device in a plain water rinse tub instead of a soapy wash tub. In a rinse tub, the device would assist with flushing the soap from feathers before the bird is transferred to a traditional out-of-water rinse station.

Another potential use involves a taxa that can be a big challenge in regards to decontamination: marine mammals. Removing very large cetaceans or pinnipeds from the beach in order to decontaminate them may sometimes not be feasible. In these cases, we might look for a way to bring the washing to them. Having a portable, recirculating washing device with strong water pressure would be an asset for this kind of in-situ washing scenario.  

We are still considering all of the possibilities that the Recirculating Wash System might provide. If we do move forward with building a physical prototype, it will be thoroughly tested before it gets the greenlight for live animal decontamination. Exploring new technologies is an exciting frontier for us at the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. We know that there is much to be learned and much to be gained when we strive to improve on existing technologies and practices.

We’d like to thank Jordan, Jenna, Sean, Jonathan, Nicholas, and Carlos from our student design team for their hard work, enthusiasm, and professionalism! And another big thank you to the Wildlife Health and Technology Group who developed the awesome 3D-printed wildlife rinse nozzle featured in the design drawings.


OWCN Logo – The Next Generation!

(Apologies to Gene Roddenberry)

At its inception in 1994, the OWCN had a truly beautiful pen-and-ink drawing of a southern sea otter, brown pelican, and harbor seal commissioned to reflect the scope of its mission. This amazing piece of art was fantastic when reproduced on laser printers and in our professional single-colored publications, but it had one key flaw – when published in color and when the resolution of its reproduction was not the best, it had some, er, interesting interpretations.

In 2004, due to some of these challenges and the desire to have a more modern feel, I asked Alison Kent and Greg Massey to work at taking the spirit of the original logo and re-imagine it in a version that could be better applied to all formats. Thus, the advent of the paintbrush-style logo. This allowed MUCH easier interpretation on logowear, allowed us to better apply it in color publications, and reflected the evolution of the program to a more modern state.

Fast-forward to 2015, when the mandate of the OWCN shifted from being marine only to one where we respond anywhere in California – Bakersfield to Bodega Bay – as long as animals were affected in surface waters of the state. As we have expanded and morphed the program to allow for this, it became clear to us that our logo – highlighting three key marine species – didn’t fully encompass our new charge. Thus, the need for another change.

In thinking about how to do this, we had a number of thoughts: Do we completely change it to a different construct? Add a fourth image to the existing logo? Poll the Network? Bring in a graphical consultant? At this point, it hit us that: 1) We need to honor the history of the OWCN, 2) by altering one species, it could allow for the shift we desired while not drastically changing it, and 3) we need to select a representative terrestrial species that looks similar to one on the logo but has an interesting ecological role and story in California.

Therefore, our choice of a replacement species is the American badger (Taxidea taxus), replacing the harbor seal (and, no, this was not done from some personal conceit due to it being my personal spirit animal as some have suggested!). American badgers are burrowing carnivores that use their claws to excavate dens for protection, sleeping sites, food storage, places to give birth, and as focal areas for foraging – thus at high risk of coming into contact underground should oil be spilled into den habitats. Badgers were once very common throughout California, but whose populations have been at high risk of extirpation due to a combination of habitat loss, habitat fragmentation, rodent poisoning, and predator control. Badgers have important ecological roles as bioturbators and predators on rodents, but studies on population trends by Williams (1986) reported that badgers, while still widespread throughout California, were much less common than reported by Grinnell (1937) and were likely threatened with significant future decline. As a result, the badger was designated a species of special concern (SSC) to encourage governmental agencies to prioritize badger conservation in land and resource management decisions in order to avoid state or federal endangered species listing in the future. Because of the need for better science (another tenet of the OWCN), the CDFW has even set up an online reporting system for sharing sighting info!

So, I am proud to unveil our new, new logo, effective July 1! We will be slowly changing logowear and swag items (for those attending the upcoming Oilapalooza, keep your eyes out!), but all electronic media will have this change applied immediately. While we never want to see an oiled badger in our centers, we are happy that our new logo reflects three species of historical and ecological import for our state and conveys a better representation of all that we, as a Network, strive to be ready for!


Getting animals from Point A to Point B – Let’s talk Transport!

Photo: Total number of airplanes airborne at 08:20 AM PST on 6/22/21. Source: Flighttradar24

Whether you’re driving your car from point A to point B or working out the logistics of your next big trip (yes, we can start to think about safely traveling again!), transportation is one way or another part of our daily lives. Having a partner that works in the airline industry, I often find myself in inquiry about flight operations and how we can apply it to spill response. This leads me to frequently quizzing my husband with questions, such as: How do they figure out which plane is going to operate which flight? How does operations ensure the correct baggage is on the flight with its passenger? What happens when a pilot gets sick or exceeds their duty time? And how to they manage air traffic with so many flights in the air at once? What I’ve discovered is airline operations are a dynamic environment that requires a tremendous amount of planning, round-the-clock personnel, and the ability to rapidly respond to an ever-changing environment. Oh, and did I mention technology? In the past I’m sure there was a lot done on paper, but now almost everything is electronic. Gone are the days of carrying around a 50-pound bag full of charts. Now it’s a 2-pound iPad. By now you’re probably asking yourself “how does this curiosity play into what the OWCN does?” Great question! Let’s explore this a little further. Oiled wildlife response involves pre-planning (or readiness), ongoing operations, and A LOT of logistics. So, from the 10,000 ft. level the concepts are somewhat similar – coordinating a lot of moving parts in a very dynamic environment.

OWCN Organizational Chart

For the sake of this blog, we’re going to focus on one aspect of Field Operations –Yep, you’ve guessed it Transportation (but we’ve abbreviated it Transport)! Now, you may be wondering isn’t Transport just the intermediary step between field and care?” Yes, it is! In our ICS organizational chart, Transport is housed under the Recovery Group and includes a Transport Coordinator, Transport Staff and potentially some Transport Volunteers. All personnel will report to the Transport Coordinator (TC), who reports to the Wildlife Recovery Group Supervisor (WRGS).

Now that we know where Transport lives on the org chart, let’s talk about how important (and sometimes forgotten) animal Transport is to the success of the response. Looking at the organizational chart it may not look like a significant portion of the response, but it is a VERY important part. We cannot CARE for our patients that the field teams collect and stabilize without proper focus on getting the animals FROM the field (either from the recovery teams or Field Stabilization sites) TO the Primary Care Facility (PCF). It may sound as easy as putting the animals in a vehicle and driving them to the facility, but there is much more involved. Over the last two years the OWCN Management Team has been focusing on ways to streamline the transport process, including minimizing the amount of paperwork necessary by incorporating new technology and streamlining how we communicate between the Recovery, Field Stabilization, and Care & Processing Groups.

However, we cannot do our jobs without proper resources, or as I like to say, “staff and stuff”. Some essentials include a secure vehicle that allows for separation of the drivers and animals, as well as the ability to control temperature since some species need temperature regulation. Additionally, we need species-appropriate carriers, bungies, etc. to make sure carriers are secure; thermometers or other temperature monitoring devices; drivers; iPads or cell phones; Vehicle Protection Equipment (VPE) kits; Personal Protective Equipment (PPE); documentation (Animal Collection Tags, mileage tracker, etc.); and a map – just in case technology fails us! Oh, and I almost forgot one of the most important parts, personnel training, which occurs prior to an incident AND during an incident. 

The OWCN Ford Transit Transport Vehicle

Now back to technology – we are very excited to give you a sneak peek into the new system we are developing! Our aim with this system is to streamline vehicle inventory and assignments and communication flow within Transport and to the other pertinent areas of the response, and to track the location of animalsthroughout the transport process. To decrease the mounds of paper and numerous phone calls, we’ve tried to shift some of the documentation and communications to electronic platforms by:

  • Utilizing QR codes linked to a fillable form via JotForm (see image below), so that we can track vehicle information, including vehicle check-in/out and mileage 
  • Electronically checking out Vehicle Protection (VPE) kits and conducting inventory upon return to the staging area
  • Incorporating the use of a shared Google sheet for transport requests
  • Transitioning to a QR code and fillable form system (JotForm) to communicate which animals are being transported from Point A to Point B. This also allows us to track how many animals, what type of animal, species of special concern and animals that may need to be prioritized for treatment in each batch of animals being transported

Information entered into the JotForm system automatically exports to a Google sheet which can easily be monitored by the Transport Coordinator and the Group Supervisors. Our hope is for this system to cut down on the amount of phone calls between personnel, thus allowing for more time to focus on patient recovery and care. But don’t forget there is still a lot of coordination that goes into safely moving animals during a response. I’ve included a flow chart to illustrate the flow of animals through this process. 

Example Animal Flow Through Transport System

So, what do you need to do if you are interested in becoming a Transport driver or maybe even a Transport Coordinator? Well, be sure to keep your OWCN responder database profile (in Better Impact) up to date, complete your Core Webinars, the Basic Responder Training, and the Animal Transport webinar. Also, not required, but you may let us know that you’re interested by contacting us at OWCN@ucdavis.edu

In the meantime, have a safe and happy summer. If you’re traveling, safe travels and be kind to those who are on the front lines making sure you get from point A to point B safely. You’re their number one priority!

~Danene Birtell

Making Mental Health a Priority in Spill Response and Beyond

May is mental health awareness month, and even though it is now June, mental health should be something that we are aware of, and actively work towards, every day of the year. 

The pandemic has given us many lessons, but one of the most poignant lessons is that mental health is essential for overall well-being in everyday life. And mental well-being can be affected by many factors, including sickness (of ourselves or someone we care about), the loss of a loved person or a pet, the loss of a job, divorce, etc. These stressful events that can greatly impact our mental health will happen in everyone’s life. These challenging events are usually beyond our control. However, how we respond to stressful or otherwise challenging events IS within our control, even though sometimes it is difficult to believe this and may take years of practice. 

When difficult times come our way and cause us anger, sadness, and frustration, changing how we relate to and think about our emotions can have a powerful effect on our overall mental health. Instead of pushing away difficult emotions and labeling them as “good” or “bad”, if we are able to view emotions as indicators or data points and realize that we are not our emotions (“I am noticing sadness” instead of “I am sad”), this can help us be more resilient in the face of challenging times. For more on this, I encourage you to watch this powerful TED talk by Susan Davis.

When we experience difficult emotions, knowing that they won’t last forever (after all, nothing does) can be a powerful tool in helping us be in the driver seat, instead of our emotions taking over the steering wheel. Easier said than done, right?  Having the right tools for any job can help make that job easier, as is the case with mental well-being and resilience. Each person is different, so knowing what tools might help is the first step.  Tools can include practices of mindfulness, meditation, exercise, walks in nature, journaling, yoga practice, warm baths, prayer, or talking with a friend or therapist. These are just a few of many potential options that could make a difference in how you relate to challenging emotions and events, and build resiliency as well as improve mental well-being.

So where does spill response fit in all this?  Well, being involved in any type of emergency (either as a bystander or as an active participant), can be a highly stressful experience. Not only is it a stressor, but for those that are deployed, it usually means long hours day after day, and can sometimes mean exposure to animal suffering, which can only add to the overall challenge of these events. 

The OWCN recognizes that responder mental health during spills is essential for overall success of that response. By providing support and resources to wildlife responders, both before and during a response, and increasing awareness and importance of wellness, we are hoping to collectively increase our resilience and help avoid responder burnout. 

The OWCN has worked hard to incorporate awareness of the importance of mental well-being into trainings, and offers a webinar (“Trauma Resiliency”) that can be accessed any time through the Volunteer profile if you are in the Better Impact database. Additionally, one of the working groups that was formed during our last Planning Summit was the Responder Wellness Group. Since Oct. 2020 this group has been meeting regularly to develop ideas for increasing wellness tools, both before and during response. I don’t want to spoil the surprise by announcing all the cool things this group has been working on, but stay tuned!

As we slowly return to more of a “normal” post-pandemic life, let’s make sure we are all taking care of our mental health. As mentioned, there are tools that we can use to help our mental health, but also know that sometimes that is not enough and we need to reach out for help, and that is OK. Know that seeking help is a sign of courage, not weakness. We are all in this together. There are many online resources, but one place you can start is here.

If you or someone you know is in crisis, contact the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or dial 911 in case of emergency.


Rinse and Repeat

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.

Wilder: Proof of Life—May 6, 2021

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…

— Sam

Celebrating Women in Oiled Wildlife Response – Jonna Mazet

Jonna Mazet is a world-renowned scientist known for her innovative “One Health” approach to complex problems arising from the interface of people, animals, and the environment. Prior to becoming the Director of the One Health Institute, she was the pioneer of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN). When I asked her how she got started in oiled wildlife response she stated that “while finishing vet school, and early on in graduate school, I was helping with some data analysis from the Exxon Valdez spill. I found that work extremely interesting and that is what inspired me to consider the effects of oil on wildlife as a PhD topic. Studying the effects of oil on wildlife for my PhD is really what inspired my deep interest into oiled wildlife response.”  

I asked how she went from studying the effects of oil on wildlife to spearheading the OWCN within OSPR, and then ultimately being able to bring that program to UC Davis. “My studies were primarily funded by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly Fish and Game). While I was finishing my PhD there was an opportunity to apply for a job with CDFW. All the oil spill response work being conducted at the time was headed by Dave Jessup and contract veterinarians that were hired to do responses, and I was one of those veterinarians. At this point there were enough spills occurring to raise concerns, and the legislation was in place to support the creation of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. They recruited for a position, and I applied.”  That job began at the end of 1994, and Jonna began working as an employee for CDFW, setting up the Oiled Wildlife Care Network. 

Jonna explained to me that there was this thing called a sunset clause written into the legislation that was developed to create the OWCN. A sunset clause is “a measure within a statute, regulation or other law that provides that the law shall cease to have effect after a specific date, unless further legislative action is taken to extend the law.” At this time, the legislation for the OWCN was being brought before the legislatures so they could decide whether to keep or get rid of the program. It was ultimately decided that the program would be continued, but that the program should be brought into a University that had a Veterinary Medicine Department. The Vet School at UC Davis already had other interagency connections between the school and the state, so bringing the OWCN to UC Davis made sense. Especially because during this time when the legislation was being brought back before the legislatures for a vote, it had become obvious that there were some issues regarding the building and maintenance of facility infrastructure required to support an organization like the OWCN. These issues included how the facilities would be maintained, how we would know if we were maintaining excellence for the wildlife, and how we would know that we were doing the right thing scientifically. Thus, having this program housed within UC Davis, and the creation of the competitive grants program, created an avenue to overcome these issues. 

As the OWCN transferred from the state to the university, so did Jonna, and thus, that is how the OWCN, and its fearless leader, ended up being a part of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine! It was not long after Jonna began her career here at UC Davis that she was asked to help head the Wildlife Health Center as the Co-Director with Walter Boyce. She led both the OWCN and the Wildlife Health Center until 2003 when Mike Ziccardi was hired as the new Director for the OWCN. With the OWCN off her plate, Jonna continued to lead the Wildlife Health Center until 2014.

I asked Jonna what her initial goals were when the Oiled Wildlife Care Network was in its infancy, and she told me that getting the different stakeholders such as the rehabbers, the state, and the oil industry to communicate with one another was at the top of the list. When she first started, many of these facets were at odds with one another and therefore did not communicate well. Thus, her first task was to listen to these diverse groups, understand their needs, and draw out common ground between them to establish win-win scenarios for all involved. She was successful in this endeavor and credits the academic community for much of this success. “Bringing in the academic community as a neutral voice encouraged the different sectors to use this platform as a sounding board to voice their concerns, needs, and desires so that common goals could be established. One of the most critical components to all of this was getting the rehab community, who was already leading a huge movement to do this work well, the tools, information, and protocols they needed. I didn’t create these protocols, but I listened to what the rehabbers were saying, worked with them to identify their needs, and asked scientists to test out our theories to see if our inclinations were true. It took some time, but we were able to achieve this successfully, and that is something I saw as a major accomplishment.”  

I asked what it was like to be a woman in the wildlife response industry, and if women were represented at all during this time. When Jonna started, at least in the technical capacity, it was “really just me and Yvonne Addassi who were the main players at the state level. There were slightly more women in the university setting in the high-level scientific positions, but overall, women were very much underrepresented. The highest numbers of women in positions of power were within the rehab sector.” Overall though, Jonna says she “felt supported in the movement to improve wildlife response in California, especially by women in the rehab community.” 

While there was a lot of support for the creation of the OWCN, and a desire to improve the wildlife response aspect of spill response, there were some men who made it their mission to attempt to get Jonna fired, both during the time she was a Fish and Wildlife employee and as an employee of the University. These individuals were clearly unsuccessful in their endless attempts to obstruct her success. I asked her why she thought they might have wanted to see her fail, and she told me that at the time she “didn’t take being a woman as being a big part of that, but in retrospect it probably did. I was knee deep into this project, kept my head down, and moved forward without addressing the reasons why they were so intent on impeding my success. In hindsight, ignoring those issues was something I did to survive. I had small children at the time and was trying to do the right thing by family and the right thing at work, and so to be successful at both I just ignored it and soldiered on.” Despite these challenges, she noted there were also men who were incredibly supportive of her as a scientist, as a person and who helped her achieve her goals and her success in the industry. 

Retrospectively, Jonna says that she “wasn’t necessarily being the best role model or forger of ground for other women who would come after me, I was just doing the best I could. In today’s society, these issues are more talked about and more openly addressed and I would handle them much differently now.” Nevertheless, the lessons she learned over the years from facing these issues and challenges instilled in her the hard work ethic and respectful professionalism that continues to empower her today. “I’ve always used, to the best extent of my power, hard work and respectful professionalism to move agendas forward, and I think that is just a basic guideline for women, and men, moving forward.” 

Jonna helped lay the foundation upon which the OWCN was created but could not have done it without the collaborative effort between the rehab organizations, the state, and the oil industry. There are many things we have to be grateful for since the OWCN’s founding; the vast improvements we have seen in the quality of care for oil affected wildlife, the facility infrastructure that has been created, the improvement in response capabilities, and the wonderful network that provides the personnel power to accomplish all of this. So, thank you Jonna, for being the pioneer of our incredible organization, and an inspiration to women for generations to come.  

Photo credits: Jonna Mazet, Mike Ziccardi, and Eunah Cho Preston


Women in Oiled Wildlife Response – Wendy Massey

Wendy Massey is currently the OWCN’s Field Operations Facilities Specialist. She has had a huge influence on me since I started here and has taught me an incredible amount about oiled wildlife, response operations, and been my guiding hand through every response I have been a part of. But aside from that, Wendy has been a prominent figure in wildlife response for decades and is a well-known and respected member of this profession. Here is her story.  

My late uncle was International Bird Rescue’s Jay Holcomb – so you might say I was born into the business. Jay was always involved in animal rehabilitation and as soon as I could walk I followed him everywhere. Because of that I have been surrounded by wildlife rehabilitation literally my entire life. Growing up in Marin County meant oiled birds were often in the mix. In the beginning I would help Jay care for and wash oiled birds while standing on a step stool, as I was too young to reach the exam table or sink. Oiled wildlife rehabilitation presents challenges that are much different from the norm so it was a specialty I was drawn to as I grew older. Helping these animals became very important to me so in 1992 I started responding to oil spills with the International Bird Rescue and Research Center.

Back in the early 90’s we were just starting to participate in all the different aspects of spill response we now take for granted in California. Before that we weren’t part of the Operations Group and no one in Planning or Logistics actively supported the wildlife effort. We often took care of the animals in some off-site warehouse away from all the “real” action. When I look back on my early experiences I think it’s important to mention not only was I a young woman but I was also seen as a “Hippy Tree Hugger” to boot. I remember being on site at the McGrath Lake spill, recovering oiled birds, and feeling pretty uncomfortable. Incorporating wildlife response into a spill event was new to the oil industry and not always welcomed or understood. This was one of the first times I worked at an actual spill site shoulder to shoulder with representatives of the responsible party, natural resource trustees, and oil spill response organizations. These were almost always men and I would hear them make a lot of casual sexual comments directed at or made about me. Comments mostly came during conversations carried out over open radio comms that I heard through the handset I was required to carry and monitor. Sometimes these were made face to face with the apparent goal of making me feel I didn’t belong there. Thinking back, it’s amazing to me that these guys felt entitled to just say anything they wanted! I never feared for my safety but definitely was very uncomfortable. If that happened today I certainly would report it, but back then we were lucky just to be there and be allowed to recover the affected animals.

For those who aren’t familiar with the history, the McGrath Lake Response happened before OWCN existed. Wildlife responders worked directly with the newly instituted California Office of Spill Prevention and Response (OSPR). For this response our OSPR partners were Dr. Dave Jessup and Tim Williamson. I’m not sure that OSPR knew what to think about working with rehabilitators, but we made it work and Dave and Tim remain friends of mine to this day.

Early in my career I wanted to expand my skills beyond the capture and care of animals. I transitioned to the facilities side of wildlife response where being a woman wasn’t necessarily a plus. Not having purpose-built facilities in California at that time meant we had to find and alter existing structures to suit our special needs. I often dealt with contractors needed to install critical systems. Oiled wildlife care facilities require specific and unusual infrastructure. When explaining my needs to the contractors I would often be met with condescension and comments like “little lady I don’t think you know how plumbing works, so let me try and explain it in a way you can maybe understand”. Although I often dealt with these men’s derogatory attitudes and comments, thankfully there were always other men who supported me along the way. From day one Tim Williamson was one of those men. He always did everything he could to help me succeed.

Some of my favorite memories from my response experiences revolve around the people I was fortunate to work with. I firmly believe you’re only as good as the people around you and I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by some very good people. Every spill event is different. The location, the type(s) of affected animals, product, time of year, how long after the event before you’re activated, etc. always varies and impacts your mission. Despite well-designed protocols, how you care for and recover animals also is very often different. Because of all these variables, and the lessons learned during past responses, I can’t overly emphasize the importance of thinking outside the box. For me the diversity of experiences, those new and constantly evolving challenges, and the reward of helping the impacted animals is what keeps me coming back for more. I learn something different on every spill response that helps broaden my view of what may be successful in spills that follow.

One of my favorite spills was the 1996 M/V Citrus spill. The spill was in the middle of the Bering Sea with oiled birds coming ashore on the Pribilof Islands. International Bird Rescue sent recovery groups out to the islands, but the animal care facility was in Anchorage. I was responsible for our wildlife care facilities which proved to be a big challenge. I believe we wound up with over 200 birds in care. Most of these were King Eiders. Because it was winter in Alaska we had to house operations indoors. I had limited space to work with and had to find a separate dry space for the oiled birds as well as pool space for the clean birds. You can’t discharge pool wastewater outside in an Alaskan winter because it simply freezes on the ground. I had to find a solution to supplying and discharging water without it freezing. That’s when I learned how important it is to be really innovative. That spill pushed me beyond my comfort zone and forced me to find ways to successfully solve our problems. Another reason this response is a favorite is because we worked side-by-side with the U.S. Coast Guard in the facility, all day, every day. At the outset they looked unfavorably on pretty much everything we did. By the end of the response their attitude changed, and they were just as invested and engaged in the wildlife response as we were. It was an incredible experience.

The California oil spill response industry continues to evolve. It’s now a more professional arena that provides a more equitable chance for all parties to succeed, but there are still improvements to be made. I no longer hear offensive comments made over open radio communications, but this doesn’t mean all instances of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior have vanished. Men in the response industry are part of society at large and not divorced from its general problems. Also, wildlife response has matured and become a more professional undertaking. Those working in this field (both female and male) are more easily accepted by responders filling more traditional roles. Unlike in the past, if I encounter a problem today I feel comfortable coming forward with any complaints or concerns.

What advice would I give to women interested in this field? If you can commit to long hours, inconvenient work schedules, and passionately care about wildlife – I highly recommend it. It’s been a great ride and it’s not over yet.

Wendy’s career is definitely long from over, and I for one, look forward to our continued collaboration and innovation for years to come! All photos in this post were provided by Wendy Massey and Mike Ziccardi.


Introducing our new Care Veterinarian!

This week, I am excited to announce the new addition to the OWCN Management Team, Dr. Jamie Sherman!

Dr. Sherman with black bear cub

Jamie’s passion for working with wildlife began during a research abroad program in South Africa, as a part of her undergraduate studies at Syracuse University. She then obtained her Master’s degree from UC Davis, where she conducted research in conjunction with the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center and California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) to advance California black bear population health. In addition to her research (and later, during her veterinary studies), Jamie spent 10 years working for CDFW, caring for orphaned and injured wildlife and assisting with large-scale population field studies of bighorn sheep, mule deer, and elk. Jamie obtained her veterinary degree from UC Davis with a focus on wildlife and zoological medicine.

Dr. Sherman with a big horn sheep

Following graduation, Jamie moved to Reno, NV where she has served as a veterinarian for a mixed animal veterinary practice. As a small and exotic animal veterinarian, Jamie has provided advanced preventative, clinical and surgical care for cats, dogs, companion exotics, and zoological collections at the Sierra Safari Zoo and Animal Ark Wildlife Sanctuary.

Dr. Sherman with a flamingo

Jamie is excited to return home to UC Davis and join the Oiled Wildlife Care Network team. As Care Veterinarian for the OWCN, she is looking forward to influencing the care of wildlife affected by oil spills, expanding response capability through training and public engagement, and advancing research in the field of oiled wildlife science.

We are so excited to have Jamie join our team and can’t wait to share our amazing Network with her!


Is Climate Change Intensifying the Natural Disasters that Affect Wildlife?

Here at the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, our mission is to provide the best achievable capture and care to wildlife affected by oil spills in California. But while our efforts to help wildlife are focused on oil spills of anthropogenic origin, our work shares some similarities with other disaster events that can affect wildlife and the environment. Response to natural disasters such as wildfires, hurricanes, winter storms, and floods can end up looking a lot like an oil spill response. Due to the many parallels between oil spills and these natural disasters, we at the OWCN try to keep our finger on the pulse of wildlife disaster response, even when the disaster event isn’t “directly” caused by humans. And I say “directly”, because as anyone can see—in recent years, weather events are becoming more severe and destructive. The mounting scientific evidence tells us that this trend is likely the result of our changing climate.

Wildfires are growing in magnitude and frequency. Drought conditions in parts of the world are devastating both human and animals alike. And just last week Texas faced an unprecedented drop in temperature leaving millions of Texans without heat and power. Climate change, of course, is one of the most complex and even divisive topics of modern day. But one undeniable fact is that we have seen an increase in weather anomalies in the last few years and experts are concerned that this trend indicates that we’ll see even more unpredictable weather in the future.

There are two recent climate-caused wildlife disasters that I’d like to highlight today. One due to heat and one due to cold. In both cases, the affected wildlife were given a chance at recovery thanks to the hard work of some very determined wildlife rehabilitators.

The first disaster has been unfolding annually at wildlife refuges along the California-Oregon border. Avian botulism is a natural occurrence in wetland habitats around the world, but in recent years severe outbreaks of the deadly toxin have been ravaging wild birds along this critical portion of the Pacific Flyway.

“Botulism is a natural toxin produced by a bacterium ( Clostridium botulinum ) commonly found in the soil. There are several types of botulism toxin some of which can affect humans who eat improperly canned foods. Birds get their own kind of botulism that does not affect humans. Botulism is concentrated in aquatic invertebrates that filter feed sediments or water. When birds eat the invertebrates, they get a concentrated package of toxin. A bird-to-bird cycle can also exist where maggots feeding on dead birds can concentrate the toxin and can then be eaten by and poison other birds.”

The United States Geological Survey
Photo credit: Field Manual of Wildlife Disease – General Field Procedures and Diseases of Birds; The USGS National Wildlife Health Cent

So why then, if this is a naturally occurring event, is it necessary for humans to intervene and try to save the affected wildlife? The answer is a complicated one. First, you should know that botulism outbreaks tend to favor wetlands whose water bodies become shallow and hot during the summer. Receding water levels force the invertebrate-seeking birds to congregate in order to feed. And what are they feeding on? That’s right. A lethal dose of botulism toxin disguised as a tasty maggot. Yikes, okay, well it’s tasty for the duck! And so after its meal, the duck eventually succumbs to the effects of botulism and its carcass attracts more maggots which attract more ducks and the cycle continues. And continues. And continues. Until! The wetland dries up or floods. This changes the environmental conditions enough so as to stop the production of toxin by C. botulinum. This is where things get tricky from a responsibility standpoint.

If botulism outbreaks are worsened by decreased water availability, then we humans are already inextricably linked to this disaster event. Water is a human-managed resource in many parts of the world and it’s in scarce supply. When drought conditions prevail, water has to be rationed between a number of stakeholders, including residents, farmers, ranchers, and refuges. With limited options for supplying water to these affected wildlife refuges, another tactic for mitigating a botulism outbreak is removing the dead and dying birds from the environment to break the cycle of infection. Deceased birds are disposed of, but what is the fate of the birds collected live, yet paralyzed by the deadly toxin? Luckily for the birds near the Lower Klamath National Wildlife Refuge, there is hope.

A small, but industrious group of experienced wildlife rehabilitators have banded together along with refuge volunteers and wildlife trustees to formulate a plan to help these sick birds recover. This group, led by Bird Ally X, is rising to meet this seemingly insurmountable challenge year after year. In 2020 alone, they were able to treat thousands of botulism birds with a very high success rate. The 2020 animal numbers dwarfed those from the botulism response in preceding years. This discrepancy is largely believed to be tied directly to water availability and refuge managers are working on securing more water for the upcoming season in the hopes that an outbreak can be avoided or minimized.

So come hell or low water, Bird Ally X will be preparing to rescue more botulism-affected birds this year and probably for years to come. Unlike with some oil spills, there is no responsible party to foot the bill of the wildlife response. If you’d like to make a contribution to Bird Ally X’s botulism response efforts, click here.

Scientists at NASA have uncovered evidence that human-generated emissions influence global-scale drought conditions. And what’s more, climate models predict that droughts will become more frequent and severe in the years to come. Of course, botulism outbreaks are only one of the countless ways that droughts affect wildlife.

Shifting over to another extreme, we’ll now dive in to a climate-caused wildlife disaster that’s still unfolding in the Gulf of Mexico. You may have seen this story on the news or social media. The images are distressing—thousands upon thousands of sea turtles resting on the floors of a conference center in South Padre Island, Texas. If you’ve ever had the privilege of spotting a sea turtle in the wild, you surely took notice of their grace in the water. But on the beach, they are vulnerable—practically defenseless. So to see them lining the halls of a building that normally houses expos and symposiums is quite a shock.

Photo: Sea Turtle, Inc.

The sea turtles have been stunned by the sudden blast of cold temperatures that hovered over Texas and Louisiana in the middle of February. Cold-stunned sea turtles are typically found in more northern waters, but there have been previous occurrences of large numbers being affected along the shores of Texas. In 2018, more than 3,500 sea turtles were cold-stunned in Texas, but this year’s numbers already exceed 5,000 individuals. So what exactly does it mean for a turtle to be “cold-stunned”?

With recent drops in weather and water temperature, many communities on our coasts are seeing hundreds of sea turtles, many of them dead, washing ashore. This phenomenon, known as cold stunning, refers to the changes sea turtles experience when they are exposed to cold water for an extended period of time…

… Sea turtles are reptiles, relying on external sources of heat to maintain their body temperatures. When turtles are cold stunned, usually when water temperatures reach 50 degrees and below, they will experience a decrease in heart rate and circulation causing them to become lethargic. Cold stunning may lead to shock, pneumonia, frostbite, and potentially death, as they are not able to migrate to warmer waters.

With the help of many groups, cold stunned sea turtles can be transported to a rehab facility, placed in a dry tub and evaluated for any other existing health concerns. They will be warmed up slowly and, when appropriate, placed in water and closely monitored by rehab staff. Once fully recovered, the turtles are released.

Turtle Island Restoration Network (TIRN)

Kemp’s ridleys, hawksbills, loggerheads, leatherbacks and green sea turtles were among the endangered chelonians that washed up on the beach or had to be rescued from the sea. Sea Turtle, Inc., a rehabilitation, conservation, and education organization in South Padre Island led the rescue efforts which drew support from the public, boaters, and even SpaceX who donated a massive generator to heat the still powerless convention center. Texas’s February arctic blast wreaked havoc on humans and animals alike. Why? Because that kind of extreme cold is just not expected in that part of the world. As the climate changes, weather patterns are bound to shift. But why such a sudden and extreme weather change for Texas? Scientists suspect that the out of place arctic temperatures were the result of fluctuations in the jet stream, a band of winds that blow west to east and provide a barrier of sorts between cold, arctic air and the warmer mid-latitudes. While some variation of the jet stream can allow cold air to reach more southern latitudes, scientists warn that Arctic warming could result in an increase in these episodes.

I had the privilege of visiting Sea Turtle Inc. last year. Their sea turtle facilities were world class, but 5,000 sea turtles would surpass any one facility’s capacity. This begs the question: What will happen next year and the year after? Already endangered and facing numerous climate-related threats, such as skewed sex ratios due to rising incubation temperatures, sea turtle populations can be significantly impacted when breeding-age adults succumb to cold-stunning. Sea Turtle, Inc. has already released more than 2,200 recovered sea turtles following February’s record-breaking cold-stun event. Rescue efforts of these proportions could mean salvation for the endangered species. If you would like to contribute to Sea Turtle, Inc.’s lifesaving work you may do so here.

So is climate change intensifying or—at the very least—increasing the frequency of these disastrous weather events and the effects they have on wildlife?

As casualty records continue to be broken and these grand-scale rescue efforts become more and more common, we shall soon have our answer. Climate change and wildlife disasters are heavy topics. As I wrap up this blog post, I’m finding that I need a little positivity to keep me going. Maybe you do too? So I’ll leave you with the wise words of Mr. Rogers…

So look for the helpers. And maybe even become one of them!