A Fate Worse Than Death? Biologist Recommends Killing Oil-Soaked Birds

One of the most heart wrenching aspects of the Deepwater Horizon spill has been the way thousand-mile-wide sheens of oil on the water have trapped and choked seabirds who used to float freely among the waves.

(If you haven’t yet seen it, please view the photo essay “Caught in the oil” by Boston.com here)

The Dawn dishsoap brand and thousands of volunteers from wildlife conservation organizations believe that all these birds need is a few minutes in a tub of soap bubbles before being released back into the wild, but according to one expert, it might be more humane to simply put them out of their misery.

“Kill, don’t clean,” said Silvia Gaus, a biologist at the Wattenmeer National Park along the North Sea in the German state of Schleswig-Holstein.

Catching and cleaning oil-soaked birds oftentimes leads to fatal amounts of stress for the animals, Gaus says. Furthermore, forcing the birds to ingest coal solutions — or Pepto Bismol, as animal-rescue workers are doing along the Gulf Coast — in an attempt to prevent the poisonous effects of the oil is ineffective, Gaus says. The birds will eventually perish anyway from kidney and liver damage.

Once covered in oil, a bird will use its bill and tongue to remove the toxic substance from their feathers. Despite oil’s terrible taste and smell, a bird will still try and clean itself because it can’t live without fluffy feathers that repel water and regulate its body temperature. “Their instinct to clean is greater than their instinct to hunt, and as long as their feathers are dirty with oil, they won’t eat,” Gaus says (Spiegel Online International).

“According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under 1 percent,” Gaus told Spiegel Online. “We, therefore, oppose cleaning birds.”

This perspective, while depressingly realistic, puts rescue workers in a strange bind. Unfortunately, the areas likely to see the most beached oil are several nearby wildlife preservations, including a vital nesting area for thousands of brown pelicans which were only removed from the US Endangered Species Program last year.

These birds should be protected by law, but is the law too idealistic for the birds own good?

Even the World Wildlife Federation have been known to agree with Gaus’ point of view. During the environmental cleanup of the Pallas, (which Gaus was a part of) a cargo ship that spilled 90 tons of oil in the North Sea after running aground in October of 1998, a spokesman from the WWF said: “Birds, those that have been covered in oil and can still be caught, can no longer be helped. … Therefore, the World Wildlife Fund is very reluctant to recommend cleaning.”

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A member of the Louisiana State Wildlife Response Team, cleanses a pelican of oil at the Clean Gulf Associates Mobile Wildlife Rehabilitation Station.
Image Credit: deepwaterhorizonresponse - (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Justin Stumberg/Released)

166 comments

Ana P.
Ana P.7 years ago

It's such a shame seeing this little creatures suffering because of our mistakes! If we are capable to help them, let's do it. I believe that killing is just the last option... =(

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Christine T.
Ciara T7 years ago

Unless the animal is far beyond any hope, it is much better to try to help them than to give up completely. Way to go for trying to take the so-called easy way out. Ugh.

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Andrea M.
Andrea M7 years ago

If the bird simply cannot be rehabilitated or cleaned thoroughly then yes, I would agree that euthanasia would be the best option. But so many of these birds are endangered, that it would be a shame not to try to help them as much as possible before making such a drastic-and final-decision.

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Dia Bryan
Dia Bryan7 years ago

all the people screaming "DON'T KILL!", take it in for a second. these birds are ingesting oil. most are going to die anyway, slowly and painfully. i'm not saying killing is the solution, but it's not as simple as a lot of you are making it to be.

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Gloria H.
Gloria H7 years ago

I hate to see anything suffer. I believe in Euthanasia for people when their suffering is too much. At some point there will be way too many birds to help.Thousands.God bless the rescuers, how angry they must feel washing innocent animals dying from human carelessness, stupidity and greed! Pray they can keep up the good job, not burn out, and to know there are thousands of people around the globe wishing they too could physically get out there and help too!

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April P.
April P7 years ago

OMG CANNOT BELEVE I AM HEARING THIS RIGHT WHY IN THE HELL WOULD THEY RATHER KILL THEM WHEN THEY CAN HELP THEM THATS WHATS IN HUMANE THIS MAKES ME SICK!!!! THAT THIS OIL IS IN THE OCEAN AND THE GOVERNMENT OR BP DOESNT LOOK LIKE THEY ARE DOING MUCH THIS IS ALL SICKENING!!!!!!! SHAME ON ALL OF THEM!

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Crystal B.
Crystal B7 years ago

Why is it that so many now only have the mentality to destroy?Do these people understand how many animals that would wipe out and take out of the breeding population? This is not a natural distster, it was created by MAN. If you created the problem fix it, make it right, don't just get rid of everything that is a choreor inconvient. Many people and orgs are stepping up to help and make it right so these people that have nothing helpful to say or do should just stay out of it and shut up.

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April B.
April B7 years ago

All of it is just sad and there is no "good" fix. Kill vs. clean is a debate we will have many different opinions on and no one really knows what is best. The fact that we put ourselves in the situation of needing to even face this is the ultimate problem.

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Crystal B.
Crystal B7 years ago

Do these people understand how many animals that would wipe out and take out of the breeding population? This is not a natural distster, it was created by man. If you created the problem FIX IT make it right, don't just get rid of everything that is a chore. Many people and orgs are steeping up to help and make it right so these people that have nothing helpful to say or do should just stay out of it and shut up. Why is it that so many now only have the mentality to destroy?

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Patrish Dehler
Patricia Dehler7 years ago

This call should be made by the people in charge of cleaning the birds (vet, etc.). Without tagging of all the birds that have been cleaned/released in previous spill, we have no true way of knowing the survival rate, and some species may do better than others. If it's obviously that they have consumed to much oil, and have serious respiratory problems, etc. euthanize them and focus on the ones that have best chance. After cleaning, holding then for 30-45 day should indicated if they still have problems. It's so sad and breaks my heart to say we can't save everyone of them, but I don't want anything to suffer in agony.

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