Rescuing Oiled Wildlife: Expensive and Ineffective

April 30, 2010

As the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico threatens to be even more of an environmental disaster than the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska’s Prince William Sound, people are scrambling to assess the damage, both economically and environmentally.

Footage of miles-long slicks snaking through the water is enough to send a shiver down anyone’s spine. But perhaps the most heartbreaking scenes are those of hapless wildlife coated in sludge. Hundreds of volunteers have mobilized in Louisiana and other places, ordinary citizens offering to help clean oily animals.

Yet good intentions may not be enough. While no one wants to see oiled birds and wildlife left to die, the whole premise behind cleaning oiled wildlife has been called into question. Research has shown that it is both expensive and ineffective. After the Exxon Valdez oil spill in 1989, 357 sea otters were brought in for treatment, and 197 were returned to Alaskan waters. Each survivor cost more than $82,000; radio-tracking studies of 45 of the released otters found that, eight months later, twelve were dead and nine were missing.

Around 1,600 sea birds were also captured, de-oiled, and rehabilitated. Half of them were returned to the sea at a cost of nearly $32,000 per bird. After assessing that effort, the Pacific Seabird Group of Stinson Beach, California, concluded that wildlife rehabilitation following oil spills is generally labor-intensive, costly, and has a low probability of success. (There are also health hazards for volunteers who might themselves suffer health problems from exposure to the oils while cleaning birds and other wildlife.)

The fact of the matter is that funds spent cleaning animals that are likely to die soon anyway could be much more effectively spent designing additional safety systems, investing in oil-containment research, or paying for additional emergency personnel to respond to spills. It’s not surprising that the public prefers the hands-on, emotionally satisfying method of rehabilitating individual birds, though in the long run such a method may cost more, both in animal lives and in dollars.

The desire to rescue endangered wildlife is admirable and noble, but the most obvious solution is not always the best one.


#1 SimonSays on Friday April 30, 2010 at 12:11pm

I hear what you’re saying, but the funds to rescue animals are either from environmental government agencies or environmental charities. These groups have neither the mandate -nor frankly, the responsibility- to make the safety investments that are clearly needed.

On the other hand the more effective preventive actions that would better contain future oil spills or make them less likely to happen should implemented directly by the oil companies who are the ones profiting from the oil rights.

#2 SimonSays on Friday April 30, 2010 at 12:14pm

That said, I find no reason why an oil company shouldn’t also pay for the damage it’s equipment inflicts on the surrounding ecosystem-accidental or not. Even at tens of thousands of dollars per animal after an infrequent accident, that is still peanuts for a company that makes tens of billions of dollars in profit every year.

#3 Benjamin Radford on Friday April 30, 2010 at 3:17pm

Yeah, I agree… I think the issue is that no matter who is paying for it, the money is better spent developing new ways to protect future animals instead of cleaning up oily ones likely to die soon anyway.

#4 GeekGoddess (Guest) on Saturday May 01, 2010 at 7:35pm

I should point out to SimonSays that not only the oil companies profit.  A great amount of the minerals rights in the US are held by either the federal or state government, or by individuals who own the rights on the land where wells are drilled.  Royalties are 12.5 to 25% of the oil that is recovered, the income going straight to the royalty owners.

#5 Thomas (Guest) on Wednesday May 05, 2010 at 9:48am

“ studies of 45 of the released otters found that, eight months later, twelve were dead and nine were missing.”

The question is whether they died as a result of their emersion in oil or of other causes that had nothing to do with it.  Twelve out of 45 were dead after eight months?  I don’t know, but that may be normal for wildlife.

But I see what you’re saying.  The money would be better spent making sure spills never happen inthe first place.

#6 SimonSays on Wednesday May 05, 2010 at 10:22am

I’m reading Ben’s article again and I have to ask: who’s “research has shown”? Are there any links to this research?

I would be curious to see who has conducted these studies. Furthermore, I’d be curious to see what the cost/impact of NOT putting these animals back into the wild is.

To re-iterate, the amounts of money that we are talking about eg $3-5 million based on Ben’s examples above are trivial to oil companies.  Furthermore, this may well be an expense that the company itself may want to incur, in which it’s just not our place to tell them otherwise.

#7 SimonSays on Wednesday May 05, 2010 at 10:27am

Sorry to post again, but I’d also be curious what the source is for this claim: “the public prefers the hands-on, emotionally satisfying method of rehabilitating individual birds, though in the long run such a method may cost more, both in animal lives and in dollars. ”

Despite the fact that this is arguably a false choice,is there a particular survey were people were asked if a given amount of money would be better spent on rescuing animals or preventative equipment?

It may well be the case that the corporate media prefer to highlight “feel-good” stories of animal rescue than seriously discuss oil companies’ accountability and safety records, but this not necessarily a reflection of public opinion.

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