Weighing in on Matters of Life and Death

When wildlife are affected by oil spills, should cleaning and rehabilitation be the primary response? Or would immediate euthanasia be the more responsible option for oiled animals and U.S. conservation budgets?

OWCN Director Mike Ziccardi and California Department of Fish and Wildlife Environmental Scientist Laird Henkel weigh in on this ongoing public debate in an opinion essay recently published in the Journal of Fish and Wildlife Management.

The essay, “Life and Death: How Should We Respond to Oiled Wildlife?”, advocates for a coordinated response to oiled wildlife that includes cleaning and rehabilitation. Mike and Laird assert that the care of oiled animals is worth the time and resources spent, and offer financial, scientific, ethical and legal rationale for this approach. Learn more in this week’s CDFW Science Spotlight.

Two people clean a oiled pelican.

OWCN team members wash and treat a brown pelican affected by the Refugio oil spill in 2015.

On a related note, Mike was recently interviewed by NPR affiliate station 89.3 KPCC’s Take Two program about new data that indicates the efforts to save birds harmed by marine oil spills may be more effective than ever before. He shares how pelicans are recovering three years after the Refugio oil spill. Listen to the interview (starts at 25:15). You can also follow Mike on Twitter.

Related: Brown Pelican Alive and Well, 3 Years After the Refugio Oil Spill!

The Latest on the 2015 Refugio Spill

I’m not sure about you, but to me, the Refugio Oil Spill seems like it either happened only few weeks ago or that it happened decades ago. In reality, the spill started on May 19, 2015 and deposited almost 143,000 gallons of crude oil into the Pacific Ocean just north of Santa Barbara, California. Responders from the Oiled Wildlife Care Network recovered 267 birds and 162 marine mammals.

As is typical of petroleum spills, the legal process can take years. Because of the long delays, it can be hard to stay current. So I thought I would provide a brief update regarding the Refugio Spill. Testimony for this case started in May, 2018. Over the last three months, lawyers for the prosecution and defense have been providing evidence and witnesses for the jury. Just at the end of last week, we found out that its time to start paying close attention again, as the jury is expected to start deliberations this week. For more information, check out the summary video below.


OWCN México

Kyra, Curt, and I just returned from a whirlwind tour covering both coasts of Mexico. During the last week of June, we drove to Ensenada to help with a Baja-wide oiled wildlife planning initiative. We had the opportunity to interact with government agencies and non-profit organizations from around Baja. As always in spill response there was an incredible alphabet soup of organizations:


Drill Participants. Tampico, MX

SEMAR, SEMARNAT, PROFEPA, and GECI to name just a few (and there were lots more!). All these organizations and agencies were brought together to learn about oiled wildlife response and to investigate next steps for developing a wildlife response plan for the Baja coast. Then just last week we landed in Tampico, on the East coast of Mexico. There we delivered a training and took part in Mexico’s first full deployment drill to have a wildlife component. Tampico had some of the same agencies, but also its own group of acronyms including several universities in the area who sent students to participate in the training and drill.

OWCN has been helping with spill response training and planning in Mexico for a few years now. Long-time readers of this blog may remember Kyra’s post about meeting Graciela Guerra, a professor from Universidad Autónoma de Baja California (UABC) who had taken on the task of developing oiled wildlife response in Mexico. She had approached Kyra at a meeting and asked if we could help develop something akin to OWCN in Mexico. Graciela has since retired from UABC, but she is still helping to develop oiled wildlife response in the area and was at the Baja training.

On both coasts, we were hosted by the Mexican Navy (SEMAR). While Ensenada and Tampico are very different places and our work in each location had different goals, the navy was a great host on both sides of the country. We had nice housing, good food, and worked with great people everywhere we went.

Ensenada Planning Workshop

The Ensenada workshop had a very different feel than our usual fare. We decided to concentrate primarily on planning rather than focusing on the hands-on aspects of wildlife response. We gave lectures on different components of the response and on what’s required to plan for a successful response.


Drill participants discussing response options, Ensenada, MX

We also had breakout sessions, splitting people into 3 smaller groups: Species Experts, Resources/Equipment, and Logistics/Safety. People were placed in these groups based on their knowledge and experience. The groups then discussed the next steps to take in planning for a spill. The workshop was a great success with the navy setting goals for plan development, engaging the local NGO’s, and making plans to involve wildlife responders in future drills. As always, we had so much more we wanted to do, but accomplished a lot in the 2 days we were there. We are still talking with participants from both North and South Baja about how we can help them prepare.

Tampico Response Training and Drill

Tampico is a very different place, with very different needs. The Mexican coastal region of the Gulf of Mexico was recently opened to outside oil companies for exploration.


Kyra instructs drill participants on field methods. Tampico, MX

This has brought in a lot of interest not just in drilling development, but in planning and safety. We started our time in Tampico with a training for over 70 people, many of them students. It was an incredibly engaging group full of great ideas and great questions. We stuck to more of the hands-on part of spill response for this group, though we had the opportunity to talk a bit about planning and get their thoughts on wildlife response in Mexico. The next couple days concentrated on the drill. Following some lectures on various topics from oil exploration to sea turtle rehabilitation, we started preparing for the drill. Kyra, Curt and I were there to serve as advisors to the wildlife team, which was made up heavily by the students we trained just the day before.

The students were incredibly excited about the drill, and very creative in their setup. They used chairs to simulate everything from transport vehicles to bird cages. Several even stayed in Tyvek for almost the whole drill (which, mind you, took place in the middle of the day in Mexico during summer. That’s determination!). The students even roll-played stalking and capturing the wildlife: cardboard, neoprene, and inflatable plastic effigies that we placed out for them to find. It was great to see them use and discuss the concepts we had taught them only a couple days before. As with Ensenada, there is still more work to be done. However, we expect to be back to both places and are still working with the government, local organizations, and corporations to help improve oiled wildlife response throughout Mexico.

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Students intake a stranded sea turtle during the drill. Tampico, MX


OWCN Fall Training Update

We wanted to update the Network on a few upcoming OWCN training opportunities, including an updated date for our fall Oiled Wildlife Specialist Training.

BRT PPE Activity

PPE models at our last BRT!

On Thursday, September 20th we will be holding a Basic Responder Training (BRT) at the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center in San Pedro, CA. This one-day, in-person class will cover common concepts and skills applicable across all areas of wildlife response.  The elements are designed to help participants navigate spill response in a prepared manner (i.e. animal handling, spill structure).


On Tuesday, September 25th through Thursday, September 27th we will be holding a 24hr HAZWOPER Training at Project Wildlife – San Diego Humane Society in San Diego, CA.  This three-day course is taught by our colleagues at CDFW-OSPR, and is an OSHA health and safety requirement for working in the hot zone during oil spill response.  It is required to fill certain OWCN positions within Wildlife Recovery, Hazing, and Field Stabilization. It is also a prerequisite for some advanced training opportunities.


OWS training Cordelia Apr 2018 Jean Yim photographer FS team photo

OWS Field Stabilization Graduates!

And last but not least, we we will holding an Oiled Wildlife Specialist Training on Tuesday, November 27th and Wednesday, November 28th at the Los Angeles Oiled Bird Care and Education Center in San Pedro, CA. This two-day class is for individuals with moderate to advanced hands-on experience related to at least one aspect of oiled wildlife response.  It is open both to species specialists and multi-species responders, and is intended to give participants a deeper understanding of spill response operations, broaden the applicability of the responder’s existing skills, and increase consistency between responders.

If you are currently an active OWCN responder, you can sign up for any of these courses (as long as you have complete the prerequisites) online via you responder profile at myvolunteerpage.com

If you have any questions at all, please don’t hesitate to contact us at owcn@ucdavis.edu.  

Thank you.


In Memory

Lisa at First OWCN Hazing Training (Photo: Gayle Uyehara)

As many of you may already know (if Facebook is any indication), we were saddened by the news last week that our dear friend and colleague Lisa Rabun Birkle died after a long battle with illness. Lisa was a long-time rehabilitator and oiled wildlife responder with the OWCN Member Organization Wetlands and Wildlife Care Center.

For me, she was one of those people who I can’t remember when I met her because it seems like she has always been around – always willing to help with whatever job needed to be done and always with a laugh and a beautiful smile as long you were helping animals. She was always eager to learn and improve so she could do more. She will be missed at the next Oilapalooza, the next spill, and every time oiled wildlife responders or wildlife rehabilitators get together in California.

Raise a glass, light a candle, say a prayer or whatever you do when someone leaves this world too soon. To Lisa Rabun Birkle. We will all be missing you.


Too Close for Comfort at SBWCN

Each year in California we anxiously await the ‘Fire Season’, knowing that a small spark amongst the dry landscape could result in thousands of acres of destruction.  And I have noticed that as a first responder for oiled wildlife in this great state, I have gained an even deeper level of compassion and appreciation for those brave firefighters rushing into the burning chaos in an effort to save all that they can.

So as I sat on the couch last Friday evening, a news story caught my eye as the Holiday Fire erupted in the Goleta hills (just North of Santa Barbara).  While every wildfire deserves my attention, this one stood out mainly because a few months prior I had delivered an oiled grebe to The Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network in the Goleta hills (my first time at this facility), and while I couldn’t recall the exact address, the map shown on the TV screen felt familiar.  After a quick Google search reminder of SBWCN’s location and a glance at the Cal Fire wildfire map, I confirmed that this fire was VERY close to them.  As a helpless bystander some 400 miles away, I spent the night glued to the usual social media options to see if a Facebook post or a Tweet would share good news that all was well. Luckily, the overall result is a facility still standing, and hundreds of patients transported to and being cared for at a temporary site located at the Santa Barbara Humane Society (plus transport of seabirds down to International Bird Rescue in San Pedro).

Grateful to be able to share the relatively happy ending for SBWCN, but acutely aware that the harrowing weekend was quite a stressful ordeal for volunteers, staff and patients alike (and very painful for those poor neighbors who lost their homes entirely).

If you would like more info on the Santa Barbara Wildlife Care Network and to keep up with their ongoing efforts, please check out their website.

Holiday Fire at Wildlife Center from SB Wildlife Care Network on Vimeo.



Keeping Your Hands in the Game

As we update trainings and prepare for lectures, we often find ourselves digging through our photo archives for that perfect photo. Sometimes we find it. Perfect technique, good lighting, volunteers with determined looks upon their faces. We grab the photo and then we notice: no one is wearing gloves. I admit I’ve photoshopped gloves onto hands after the fact. While this might fix the picture, it doesn’t fix the underlying problem.

no gloves

With all the photos I’ve looked through, I keep seeing people I know handling animals gloveless. Those people still have their hands and haven’t died of any weird zoonotic disease. So, what’s the deal with gloves anyway? Do we really need them? Does Mike Ziccardi just own stock in a nitrile glove company? The answer to that last one is probably yes. But if he does, it’s for a good reason. Your chances of getting a zoonotic disease are pretty low. But they are real. Add to that the cuts and abrasions common in our work, your chances are increased even further.

noglove WP checkConsider the fact that you can also impact the animals. Working without gloves increases the possibility of spreading germs you carry to animals or spreading pathogens between animals. Lotions, sunscreens, insect repellants, and even the natural oils on your hands can cause waterproofing problems for birds. These products are even more of a concern for inland species, as they can be toxic to some reptiles and amphibians – killing the animals we are trying to protect. So, for your own sake, and those of the animals you work with where the proper PPE – including gloves!