I’d like to start off by saying that I’m not a hater – just someone wanting to set the record straight. On June 28th, I had the great honor of speaking to an audience of 600+ local movers and shakers at the 2011 TEDxBoston conference. It was definitely one of the highlights of my career as The Penguin Lady. A few months earlier, I had received a phone call from Danielle Duplin, one of the curators of the event, inviting me to give a talk about the historic penguin rescue that took place after the Treasure oil spill in South Africa in June of 2000. As a huge fan of the TED talks, I had to restrain myself from jumping up and down and squealing like a teenaged girl who’d just been asked out by the really cute guy that she has a major crush on. (I’m not sure how successful I was – you’ll have to ask Danielle.)
Something I had not known prior to my TEDx experience, was that the curators have each presenter do a dry run of their talk with them several weeks before the event, just to be sure that everyone’s on the right track and to give each speaker constructive feedback. For those not familiar with the TED and TEDx talks, the concept behind these short, but powerful, presentations is that they’re about innovative ideas worth spreading. As my talk was about an event that had happened eleven years earlier, the curators encouraged me to connect it to something current, so that the audience would still find it relevant. I had already been touching on the BP oil spill in my public appearances over the previous fourteen months, and decided to structure my TEDxBoston talk (in part) around a controversial statement made during the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Specifically, I wanted to challenge the assertion held by some, that all oiled birds should be routinely euthanized.
When gut-wrenching images of oil-soaked birds in the Gulf of Mexico, like the one above, were finally released to the public during the BP oil spill, a German biologist by the name of Silvia Gaus sparked a heated debate after she was quoted in a Spiegel article saying the following; “Kill, don’t clean. According to serious studies, the middle-term survival rate of oil-soaked birds is under one percent. We, therefore, oppose cleaning birds.” And I’m sorry to say that she is not alone in making such claims. Ever since reading these words, I’ve felt compelled to inform as many people as possible that this statistic is profoundly inaccurate.
Why, you may ask, am I so certain of this? Because I had the tremendous privilege of working as rehabilitation supervisor during the rescue of nearly 40,000 African penguins following the Treasure oil spill in 2000 – an animal rescue that still stands as the largest and most successful ever undertaken; and I have seen first-hand how incredibly effective such rescue efforts can be. We managed to save 90% of the 19,000 penguins that were oiled, and 95% of the 38,500 penguins that were handled (in addition to the 19,000 oiled birds, another 19,500 unoiled penguins were moved out of the path of the rapidly approaching oil slick).
And, in the years since the Treasure rescue, I have been in close contact with South African researchers and have read their follow-up studies, which prove that, after being rehabilitated, previously oiled penguins live just as long as their never-oiled counterparts. AND, they breed nearly as successfully – their reproductive success rate is just 11% less than that of never-oiled penguins. And it’s important to note that pelicans and gulls – the two main birds affected by the BP oil spill – have similar rates of long-term survival and reproductive success after being oiled and rehabilitated. So, truly, these rescue and rehab efforts are not only valid – they are vitally important to the future survival of these species (some of which are listed as Threatened or Endangered).
So, why does Ms. Gaus, and the others who made statements similar to hers, believe that most oiled birds are going to die no matter what we do – and, therefore, euthanasia is the best response? It seems that most of these individuals are quoting antiquated data, and just have not bothered to read the most recent research on the subject. Apparently, Ms. Gaus worked as a rescuer during the Exxon Valdez oil spill, and it’s true that the animal rescue following that spill was not as successful as the effort that followed the Treasure oil spill. The circumstances of each oil spill are different – and the response to each spill is different as well, so the overall success rate of each effort does vary. But, disaster response protocols and rehabilitation techniques have improved dramatically in the twenty+ years since the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Because of this, the average success rate (meaning successful release and long-term survival) for oiled seabirds is currently between 50% and 80% – and it is often much higher, as evidenced by the 90% success rate we had with the Treasure rescue.
Certainly, not every oiled animal can be saved, and each one must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. It is true that some individuals will just be too ill or compromised to save, and in that case, euthanasia may indeed be the most humane and practical solution. But, every oiled animal deserves the dignity and respect of a caring response – and the opportunity for a second chance at life. Each one should be rescued and – if possible – rehabilitated, not only to ease the suffering of that individual animal, but to help ensure the future survival of that species. It is simply the right thing to do; ethically, morally and practically.
The video of my 12-minute TEDxBoston talk titled, The Great Penguin Rescue: the inspiring global response to a species in distress, is below. In it, I not only address the issue I’ve just written about; I also point out the power of one person to make a tremendous difference, and I highlight the importance of collaboration and volunteerism as well. For more information about my TEDx talk, visit the TEDxBoston website or check it out on YouTube. Here are the links: TEDxBoston and YouTube. If you agree with my key messages in this talk, please share the video with others. And, if you want to learn more about the incredible rescue of 40,000 penguins following the Treasure oil spill, my award-winning book, also titled, The Great Penguin Rescue, is available on Amazon and at other major outlets.