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Clean the birds, or kill them?

A biologist in Germany has stirred up a fuss with comments suggesting it makes more sense to kill heavily oiled birds from the Gulf of Mexico oil-spill disaster than to clean them.

"According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under 1 percent," Silvia Gaus, a biologist at the Wattenmeer National Park along the North Sea, was quoted as saying on Spiegel Online last month. "We, therefore, oppose cleaning birds."

Biologists on the scene who are actually involved in the cleanup tell a slightly different story: Sure, sometimes it makes sense to euthanize birds who aren’t going to make it, or leave them to die in their natural habitat. But ethically speaking, they feel a duty to try saving the birds if there’s a chance they can be saved.

For example, Rick Steiner, an Alaska marine biologist who was involved in the 1989 Exxon Valdez cleanup and is now assisting Greenpeace, said from a boat in the Gulf that he and the crew turned in a heavily oiled young egret for cleaning just today.

"It was in horrible shape," he told me via telephone, "and I doubt seriously that it will survive the day. But, you know, we caused their pain and suffering, so we owe it to them to do everything we possibly can to give them a fighting chance of survival.”

Today's numbers from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other groups involved in the cleanup show that 413 oiled birds have been collected alive, and 594 dead birds have been picked up. Of all those birds, only 39 have been released back into the wild.

The raw numbers from the Gulf certainly look grim right now, and Gaus expects those numbers to get even grimmer. She argues that rescuers' efforts to counter petroleum's toxic effects - for example, by having the birds ingest charcoal solutions or Pepto Bismol - are ineffective in the long run.

Spiegel Online says that Gaus bases her view on 20 years of experience: For example, she worked on the cleanup of the 1998 Pallas oil spill into the North Sea, which killed about 13,000 birds. The report also cites comments attributed to the World Wildlife Fund during the 2002 Prestige oil-spill cleanup off the coast of Spain, to the effect that oil-covered birds "can no longer be helped" and that the organization was "very reluctant to recommend cleaning."

During the present crisis, however, the WWF has been supportive of bird-cleaning. Although it's not directly involved in oil-spill response, one of its partners on the scene is the California-based Oiled Wildlife Care Network. And one of my sources at the WWF deferred to the International Bird Rescue Research Center, which is heavily involved in the bird cleanup effort.

Oil spill

Photo by Bill Haber / AP

Shannon Griffin, Julie Skogland and Darene Birtell clean a brown pelican at a rescue center set up by the International Bird Rescue Research Center in Buras, La.

Mark Russell, a project manager at the IBRRC, took strong issue with Gaus' claim that cleaning is ineffective: He told me that the studies on which she based her conclusions suffered from some gaps in procedure. (For example, what were the rehabilitation practices? Did the monitoring equipment that was strapped onto the released birds contribute to their demise? If you can no longer locate a bird with a transmitter, should you always assume that the bird died?)

Other studies indicate that the survival rate for cleaned-up birds can be quite high, from 78 to 100 percent, as noted on the "Living the Scientific Life" blog. And as bad as those oily pelicans may look in the pictures from Louisiana, Russell said it's often the oiliest birds that have the highest survival rate. That's because they tend to be picked up earlier, before dehydration, hypothermia and other ills have set in.

Russell said there was once a long-running debate over whether the stress of rehabilitation does the birds more harm than good. (Research shows that it doesn't.) Even now, there's a debate over whether the resources spent on wildlife rehabilitation should be directed instead toward rebuilding the tarnished environment left behind by an oil spill. The way Russell sees it, cleaning up the animals is part and parcel of cleaning up the ecosystem. Keeping wildlife populations as healthy as possible will make the recovery easier. "This isn't a 'this-or-that' situation," Russell said.

To be sure, life-or-death decisions have to be made in the field. Steiner told me that oiled birds have a "decent chance" of surviving if they're brought in during the first 24 hours of exposure to oil. But as any veterinarian will tell you, sometimes the decent thing to do is to let the animals go ... and learn a lesson.

"There is a point at which, obviously, they are suffering needlessly, and certainly they should be euthanized," Steiner said. "Some are so far gone when you're capturing them for rehab, that the best thing is to leave them there and let them die in their natural habitat. ... It pulls at the heartstrings, but this is how people get the idea behind our oil addiction, by looking at these oil-soaked birds."

To get a better sense of the struggle to save Gulf wildlife, check out our slideshow as well as the IBRRC's blog - and feel free to weigh in with your comments below.

Update for 7:10 p.m. ET: In your comments, please refrain from talking about "euthanizing" or killing anyone. Some commenters have noted that the reported survival rate for Gulf birds brought in for rehabilitation is around 10 percent, not 1 percent. But it's too early to say how much longer those animals survive once they've been released. In the Spiegel article, Gaus says the 1 percent figure she cited applies to "midterm survival." Russell says that figure is too low, even for longer-range survival, based on the scientific literature he's seen.


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