The April 20 explosion on and the sinking of the drilling rig Deepwater Horizon killed 11 workers, and led to the largest oil spill in U.S. history. By mid-July, between 50 and 140 million gallons of oil had spilled into the Gulf of Mexico from the blown-out undersea well, and thousands of animals had been affected.
In July, National Zoo veterinarian Judilee Marrow (pictured at right) went to the Gulf of Mexico to help with relief efforts.
Read about her work.
Next, Zoo vet Luis Padilla traveled to the Gulf. On July 28, day 100 after the spill, he assisted with a pelican release in Texas. Watch a video.
The Zoo had arranged for several veterinarians to accompany Coast Guard flights to relocate wildlife affected by the oil spill and help select future release sites and provide clinical care to releasable animals as needed.
Marrow and Padilla worked alongside veterinarians from the National Park Service, United States Geological Survey, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in the federal government-wide response to the oil spill. We are proud and pleased to be part of the relief effort.
The need for a long-term National Zoo vet at the Command Center has diminished now that bird releases will be occurring in-state and coordinated by the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.
The oil spill is affecting birds, marine mammals, sea turtles, crustaceans, mollusks, and fish, and may even harm terrestrial animals that feed on carcasses of contaminated wildlife. By late July about 3,500 oiled birds and sea turtles had been found dead.
More than 15,000 species, including endangered birds, mammals, reptiles, and fish, can be found in the Gulf of Mexico, and many could potentially be harmed by the spill.
Oil can be ingested directly or through a food source, it can be inhaled or taken in through gills (in the case of fish), it can coat and weigh down an animal, and it can be absorbed. Oil affects wildlife in a variety of ways. It can prevent birds from flying or diving for food, suppress animals' immune systems, impair reproduction, damage organs, and cause other fatal problems. And it can persist in sediment for 30 years. Learn more from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.
Several weeks after the spill began, as oil spread at least 70 miles from the well, the situation has worsened for wildlife. As more and more stories about the oil's devastating effects come out, many people—from wildlife-rehabilitation experts to average citizens who just love animals—have offered to help.
Staff from facilities accredited by the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA), government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and elsewhere are rescuing animals and making preparations to help as needed. They are providing medical care, de-oiling, and rehablitating animals; sharing information about affected species; gathering supplies; fundraising; and doing other activities.
More than 40 employees of the National Zoo and Friends of the National Zoo volunteered to go to the Gulf Coast to help assist with care and rehabilitation of oiled wildlife in the region. Most are members of the Zoo's Center for Wildlife Health and Husbandry Sciences. Through their experience caring for animals every day, they have gained expertise in handling wild animals, including those that are stressed and injured.
Little is understood regarding the long-term efficacy of the cleaning and treatment of oiled birds on the survival of these animals. The Smithsonian Institution, along with the U.S. Geological Survey and Fish and Wildlife Servce, has established the Migratory Connectivity Project (MCP), an effort aimed at quantifying the movement of animals. MCP provides the ideal consortium of experts for deploying satellite transmitters and other devices to track and determine the survival of translocated and treated animals resulting from the oil spill.
Photo credits: brown pelican and royal terns, USFWS/Greg Thompson; manatee, Jim Reid, USFWS; rescuing a brown pelican, U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ann Marie Gorden