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)


Looking Forward to the Full Deployment Drill Next Week!


Its all hands on deck here in Davis, California as all OWCN management staff prepare for the Full Deployment Drill next week in San Diego (January 30 & 31, 2018). The drill is shaping up to be one of our best ever! The OWCN would like to especially call out SeaWorld for taking on the task of helping to host this training. As always, their personnel have stepped up to the plate with energy and excellence!

Since SeaWorld will be hosting this drill, we will be using the Oiled Wildlife Care Center (OWCC), located on SeaWorld’s grounds, as the Primary Care Facility. The OWCN management staff will be bringing down plenty of equipment of our own including:

  • The MASH trailer (Mobile Avian Stabilization Hospital) for use as a Field Stabilization site
  • The Sprinter van as a mobile command post for Wildlife Recovery
  • The Hazing and Field Operations trailers to bring additional recovery equipment and supplies needed to deter animals from entering oiled areas
  • Three Western Shelter tents to accommodate personnel and additional animal care areas
  • Three trucks as tow vehicles

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And of course, the equipment is only half of the equation. To have a successful drill we have to have trained and enthusiastic participants. This year there will be over 85 players from 17 Member Organizations of Affiliated Agencies.

Bird Ally X
California Wildlife Center
Channel Islands Marine & Wildlife Institute
California Dept. of Fish and Wildlife/Office of Spill Prevention and Response
Institute for Wildlife Studies
International Bird Rescue
Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center
NOAA Fisheries
Peninsula Humane Society/SPCA
Point Blue Conservation Science
Project Wildlife
San Diego County Department of Animal Services
Santa Barbara Zoo
SeaWorld San Diego
The Wild Neighbors Database Project
The University of California Davis OWCN/Wildlife Health Center
Wetlands & Wildlife Care Center

In addition, this year, in conjunction with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s (CDFW), Office of Spill Response and Prevention (OSPR), we will be hosting 18 observers from Mexico who will attend the drill on January 31st. They, along with several OSPR and OWCN management staff, will then participate in a MEXUSPAC meeting the next day.

The MEXUSPAC is an “Agreement of Cooperation Between the United States of America and the United Mexican States Regarding Pollution of the Marine Environment by Discharges of Hydrocarbons and other Hazardous Substances. [It] provides a framework for cooperation in response to pollution incidents that pose a threat to the waters of both countries… and defines on-scene commanders, joint operations centers, and communications protocols that would be needed to coordinate the response to pollution incidents affecting both countries”.

So while none of us wishes for an oil spill, we are all excited for the opportunity to meet up and learn the newest techniques with so many of our friends and co-workers who are also dedicated to being as prepared as possible to save animals whenever an oil spill occurs.

This is a drill!




It’s Not Just a Job, It’s an Adventure!

Last week, Mike briefly blogged about the current job openings at OWCN. If you are a regular reader on this site, you know that there have been a number of blogs over the last half year devoted to goodbyes and thank you’s. Friends and colleagues who were formerly key members of the OWCN Management Team have moved on to new and exciting chapters in their lives. Those of us who remain are excited for everything we already have planned for 2018, but we are even more excited to find out who will join our team and what new experience, knowledge, perspective, ideas and enthusiasm they will bring with them.SilhoutesI can honestly say that working at OWCN is never boring or unfulfilling. Each day dawns with tremendous potential. Many days end with my accomplishing little that I planned at the start of the day, but always succeeding in doing something that will make a difference to animals at risk from oil spills in California or around the world.  And that is true for everyone on our team, though, perhaps, we don’t always recognize it. The OWCN Management team is made up of individuals with a wide range of skills, values, and viewpoints and working with them is a unique experience. Every person on our team is expected to be a leader, providing vision and innovation when called upon but easily adapting to take on whatever task is needed to successfully produce Oilapalooza, wash an oiled snake, or do an interview on the radio.

IMGP0107The beauty of working here is you never know what your day will be, but you can bet it won’t be boring. There are few jobs where one night you might be out on the ocean catching murres with the moon just rising, the following week teaching 6 graders about oiled wildlife, and the month after, training oiled wildlife responders in Mexico or Azerbaijan.

2014-12-04 11.35.37 I don’t mean to say that working at OWCN is all fun and games, every single day – it is not.  It can be very hard work, especially during an oil spill activation, with animal lives in the balance. But I think most of us here thrive on wanting to do everything within our power to help prepare for the next spill, which will ultimately help save more animals – our ultimate goal.  So if this sounds like you, who you would like to be, or a team you would like to be part of, I hope you will apply for one of the 3 openings!


Responder Specialist:
Final filing dates for the Readiness Coordinator and Vet positions will be 19 January 2018, and the Responder Specialist due 22 January 2018.

Join the OWCN Team!

The OWCN is currently recruiting for two career positions at this time: a Readiness Coordinator and a Facility Veterinarian. A third position (Responder Specialist) will be posted shortly. Details on these positions can be found on the following links:
Final filing dates for these positions will be 19 January 2018.

Farewell OWCN!

Justin Cox (Fourth from right) joining the rest of the OWCN team during the pre-drill festivities in Quincy, CA

I’ve managed communications for the Karen C. Drayer Wildlife Health Center, which is home to Oiled Wildlife Care Network, for the past four years. About halfway through my tenure, I booked a week-and-a-half long vacation so that the band I play in could go on a 10-date tour. The first of those shows was on May 20, 2015, which is not an insignificant timeframe for the OWCN.

That’s one day after a pipeline burst and the Refugio Oil Spill began! Of course! I spent the next two days making phone calls and sending emails to put the ducks in a row – coordinating with the UC Davis communications team to make sure they could send people down there to capture photos and document our team’s work.

To take matters to their logical extreme, the bulk of the OWCN team was at a conference in Alaska when the pipe ruptured. They had to fly down in waves as the severity of the spill became clear and seats opened up on flights. Some flew to Davis first to prep equipment and transport it to the spill. I was there to watch Kyra and Tim pack the MASH and head south. Fast and efficient from top to bottom. It was cool to watch.

I reflect on this today because, after four years in my position, I am moving on to an exciting opportunity with the SeaDoc Society in the Pacific Northwest. It’s another Wildlife Health Center program, so I’ll still be part of the family.

I’ve always found the OWCN to be interesting (compared to the many other programs I work with at the WHC) in that there is this constant need for readiness because disaster can come at any time, and those disasters can take many shapes and sizes.

That constant need for improvement is abundantly clear at the Network’s yearly full-deployment drills, where every fathomable curveball gets thrown just to make sure the team has the skills to hit them. If there’s a swing and a miss, then it’s time to talk about ways to improve for next time. That cycle is endless.

There’s no way to ever be 100% prepared, especially with the expansion to inland spill response and the many threats posed by rail transport, but the OWCN does an impressive job of getting as close as possible, and never resting on their laurels.

That extends beyond animal response and care. They manage databases, run trainings, mobilize teams and even handle the bulk of their communications on their own. The fact that they maintain a weekly blog is impressive given their array of other responsibilities. During Refugio, the team provided updates on social media, answered important questions via blog posts and responded to requests from the media.

By the time I made it down to San Pedro where dozens of oiled pelicans were recovering, the most urgent work had been done. The team had seized upon the unfortunate reality of the spill and used it as an opportunity to put trackers on a selection of pelicans to monitor their behavior and survival after the spill. Those results will inform and improve future oil spill responses. Such is the quest for steady improvement at the OWCN. I feel lucky to have worked alongside this team.

I plan on refreshing my HAZWOPER certification in the coming month, so if/when a big one happens, drop me a line and ask my new boss to send me down with a camera and a notepad!

-Justin Cox

NOTE: Me and the entire OWCN team wants to sincerely thank Justin for his behind-the-scenes professional telling of our story over the past several years, and wishes him and his family the best of luck in his new adventure with our sister organization up north on Orcas Island! And, yes, I will be on the phone with Joe Gaydos when we need him! – Mike

OWCN Full Deployment Drill Coming to Sunny San Diego


Over the past few weeks, we have begun the initial planning for our next OWCN Full Deployment Drill (FDD), which will be held on Wednesday, January 31st, 2018.  Since our last FDD was held up in Quincy in the pouring rain in March, we figured there is no better place to be in January than in sunny San Diego!

We have successfully pre-identified and filled all our area lead roles for the exercise, but wanted to give everyone (and especially those located in Region 5, a.k.a. Southern California) a heads-up that we will be sending out an email in early January announcing some volunteer opportunities and posting them to our responder database. So keep an eye out if you live in the San Diego area and are interested!

However, if you are available and interested in participating as a volunteer, please remember that you must have the following pre-requisites:

  • have an active and current responder profile in our database, and
  • have completed all 3 of the online Core Webinar Series (OWCN Overview, Spill Basics, and Responder Involvement)

Volunteers will be assisting in all areas of the drill including field operations, transportation, field stabilization, and Care & Processing (intake, prewash, wash, conditioning and support).

10558159185_fd28abac06_zWe are looking forward to drilling both the San Diego region as well as the Oiled Wildlife Care Center (located at SeaWorld San Diego).  And a special thanks to our SeaWorld San Diego folks, as they have been extra helpful and accommodating during the planning process.

The OWCN management team wishes you all a fantastic holiday season, and we look forward to seeing many of you in San Diego in 2018!