To Kill or Not to Kill Oiled Birds?


Photo via National Geographic

Earlier this week, I reported that certain oil spill experts are advocating crude-covered birds be killed rather than cleaned, because so few actually survive. Evidently and unsurprisingly, the article sparked something of a furor amongst animal lovers, who claimed I didn't fairly represent the views of those scientists who supported cleaning oil-coated birds. So what's the verdict? Should we clean every oil-covered bird we can, or put them out of their misery to prevent their suffering? The Case for Killing Birds
If only it were that simple. As in most areas of study, there is a large body of data and varying expert opinions that conflict and contrast with one another. One study shows that only 1% of oil-covered birds survive, even after being cleaned. The International Bird Rescue Research Center, on the other hand, says they have much higher success rates, and that the cleaning method has been improved to reduce stress on the animals so that more birds are surviving than ever before.

The biologist cited in my previous story feels that because the birds have ingested toxic oil, they are likely going to die anyways -- and the stress of the cleaning process needlessly makes them suffer. An ornithologist at the University of California, Davis, agrees, as cited in this Newsweek piece on, yes, why it may be more humane to animals to euthanize them rather than put them through the cleaning process:

Because the stress of being captured and bathed is as significant as the trauma of being doused in oil, and because research suggests that many rescued birds die shortly after being released, some experts say euthanasia is a more humane option. "It might make us feel better to clean them up and send them back out," says Daniel Anderson. "But there's a real question of how much it actually does for the birds, aside from prolong their suffering."
The World Wildlife Fund has made a statement essentially agreeing with both those views.

But of course, many other ornithologists and conservationists feel that cleaning oiled birds is very much worth doing, and that birds can be successfully rehabilitated. See this interview with Executive Director of International Bird Rescue for his argument in favor of cleaning birds. This is the conventional wisdom, and there are countless supporters of the practice.


Controversy Over Euthanasia
Killing oil-covered birds is never going to be a popular course of action. In fact, a writer at the blog Vegansaurus was so incensed at my previous article that he effectively inspired this one. He wrote in his response post on that site:

Here's a simple quiz: If you came home to find your house on fire, would you (a) call the fire department and, while waiting, run in to try and save your family? Or would you (b) assume they were going to die from smoke inhalation anyway, so why not pour some gasoline on the fire and finish the job?

You're probably not a sociopath, which means you answered (a). So then why the hell is Treehugger pushing the idea that rescuing oil-soaked birds is futile, so we're better off killing them?

This is a perfect example of the emotional response that discussions of euthanasia is apt to trigger, especially in animal lovers -- and it's perfectly understandable. Most people wouldn't go so far as to compare oiled birds to their family members, but it exemplifies the distress this author feels. But let me pose a question to him: if his "family members" (oiled birds for the rest of us) were going to die, excruciatingly painfully, over the next few days, even months, would it then be better to put them out of their misery? Some would say yes.

And it should be noted that whether the Vegansaur likes it or not, birds that are found with high levels of hydrocarbons in their blood (they're tested on the spot) are euthanized immediately.

He then goes on to say that I didn't properly seek an opposing view -- which, considering that he is a fellow blogger, surprised me, since he is likely aware that blog posts are not always thorough, investigative pieces of long form journalism. I was reporting on one particular view that had surfaced -- that it may be more humane to kill oiled birds than to clean them. I was assuming that everyone was aware of the opposing view: The conventional wisdom that cleaning birds is a good and worthy practice.

To Kill or Not to Kill?
Finally, the author accuses me of ignoring the IBRRC's statistics of bird survival rates. But he confuses survival rates with release rates -- an mistake to make. The IBRRC says that between 50-80% birds are released. But that doesn't mean the birds are surviving after that. From the Newseek piece again:

so far, while release rates may be improving, there is little evidence of better medium or long-term survival, especially for the more-difficult-to-save species. "They say they are getting better results, but I haven't seen any data," says Anderson. "And while the husbandry methods are better, there still aren't good biomedical protocols, for repairing the internal organ damage."
That's not to say survival rates aren't improving, just that there's a lack of reliable data showing they are. And it's indisputable that at least some birds are saved -- likely those reached before they have a chance to try to clean the oil off their feathers, and have swallowed too much oil. But it's also hard for many to separate their emotional urge to preserve wildlife from ugly facts, and there is some evidence that once these birds ingest enough oil, they are going to suffer. In that case, wouldn't it be better to keep them from suffering?

I'm sorry if this discussion makes some people uncomfortable, but it's a discussion worth having. And let me reiterate that I or TreeHugger aren't endorsing bird euthanasia -- far from it. We simply endorse an open discussion on the topic.

More on the Gulf Spill
Oil-Coated Birds Could Be Cooked Alive as Gulf Heats Up (Video)
First Birds Rescued from Gulf Oil Spill Released in Florida
BP Could Go Bankrupt Over Gulf Spill

Tags: Animals | Conservation | Gulf Oil Spill | Oil Spill