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West Sound Wildlife Shelter on Bainbridge preps long-term care facility for birds

A Great Blue Heron receives treatment at West Sound Wildlife Shelter. The new facility will host birds of all species.  - Richard Badger | Courtesy Photo
A Great Blue Heron receives treatment at West Sound Wildlife Shelter. The new facility will host birds of all species.
— image credit: Richard Badger | Courtesy Photo

West Sound Wildlife Shelter sees need to provide long-term care for birds injured in a variety of ways.

A pelican, the bird emblazoned on the Louisiana state flag, is drenched in oil. The thick muck hanging and dripping from its stained and scarred feathers may be the lasting visual legacy of the tragic oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

The spill has left more than 1,000 birds in need of care.

Should birds face the same kind of contamination in the Puget Sound they had nowhere to go.

West Sound Wildlife Shelter, a Bainbridge-based animal care facility, is preparing itself to care for birds damaged by oil and other pollutants. The nonprofit organization is in the process of creating a long-term care facility for waterfowl, the only one on the west side of the Sound. The facility will aid birds that are injured, poisoned or contaminated by other materials. It can also function as a care facility should a large oil spill occur in the Puget Sound.

“We’ve got a lot of ships coming and going out of here,” said Mike Pratt, director of wildlife services for West Sound. “Hopefully nothing like that would ever happen, but if it did we have to be honest with ourselves, and it’s better to pre-plan than have it happen and then plan.”

Pratt said the number of birds now being taken to the shelter exceeds its current capacity. The new facility will feature six rehabilitation pools and an open center area that can be used for a variety of rehabilitation procedures. The pools are larger than anything West Sound has on hand right now, and they give the birds more room to swim and dive and regain strength.

When a bird is oiled, or contaminated with other harmful agents, the materials separate the feathers, causing the avians to lose their body heat and potentially develop hypothermia. At the new facility birds can be cleaned, and rehabilitated, so their feathers can reset in position, allowing them to retain body temperature. During that time, when the birds are being cared for, they tend to lose their athleticism and endurance, Pratt said. Long-term care is needed to restore the birds’ conditioning.

The process to fully rehabilitate a bird can range anywhere from a couple of days to several months, Pratt said.

The facility would be of particular value as the only other certified facility nearby is PAWS of Lynnwood. Transporting the birds long distances puts pressure on them when they are already spending all their energy trying to survive.

The shelter is the second phase of a two-part, $575,000 project, called Take Flight. The first phase, a flight cage for injured birds, was finished last September. The care center is close to its fundraising goal, and it should take approximately three months to construct, said West Sound Executive Director Kol Medina.

Once constructed, the facility could care for as many as 150 birds, depending on their species, Pratt said. The kind of care available at a long-term facility ranges from simply washing and cleaning the birds, to completely re-aligning their feathers, which regulates body temperature and allows waterfowl to float.

“If they’re not waterproofed, then they’ll succumb to hypothermia and die out there,” Medina said.

In an emergency oil spill situation, facilities such as West Sound’s would serve as a secondary care facility, taking on birds unable to be handled on site.

Both the Washington State Department of Ecology and Fish and Wildlife have special teams or programs devoted to dealing with oil spills. The departments serve as the primary regulatory agencies of the state’s oil industry. In the event of a spill, the petroleum companies are required to have the resources to respond, clean and also begin the rehabilitation process for oiled animals, said Andy Carlson, coordinator of Fish and Wildlife Oiled Wildlife Rescue.

“Here in Washington, the companies have the primary responsibility to respond to a spill,” he said. “We don’t typically own a bunch of equipment and do on-site recovery.”

Like with the spill in the Gulf of Mexico, the oil company is responsible for costs, not the government.

Fish and Wildlife and DOE have worked with petroleum companies and several animal rescue nonprofits to help develop mobile units that can be brought to the site of a spill in pieces, assembled within 24 hours and ready to begin rehabilitation of 100 birds at a time.

These units allow for on-site care for beleaguered birds, removing the stress of transportation to a fixed facility.

Currently, there is one operational unit. Carlson said several more units are in the construction process. He believes the units can tend to all the needs of the birds.

But in a large spill situation, it’s possible the mobile units could become overwhelmed, Medina said.

“That mobile response unit can only provide short-term care,” Medina said. “Any of those birds that need long-term care and conditioning can’t be cared for by the mobile response units.”

Medina cited the Exxon-Valdez oil spill in 1989, when a tanker hit a reef, spilling millions of gallons on the coast of Alaska. Thousands of birds were covered in oil during that spill.

In smaller spills, companies may not want to deal with the expense of sending and assembling the unit to the site, so facilities like West Sound will be of high importance, Pratt said.

State officials require oil companies to prepare contingency plans for the spills, which includes rescuing and rehabilitating waterfowl. Those plans don’t include a shelter like West Sound, but the shelter may be needed in an emergency.

“They’re not part of the oil spill contingency plans that we require industry to have, including being able to handle up to 100 birds,” said DOE spokesman Curt Hart. “But if we had a significant oil spill, we would work with Fish and Wildlife, and we would want to be able to call on all resources. If that is a resource that we can call on and make use of as an overflow we would consider it.”

Carlson said on-site rehabilitation requires heavy discretion on which birds to treat. Those who aren’t able to be rehabilitated may not be treated, but they could be sent to a facility like West Sound, which could take on tougher cases.

Washington State features several major ports, and a large oil pipeline. Hart said each year 30 billion gallons of oil come across the Sound in one way or another.

Thus far, the state hasn’t had to use any of its spill resources, and the goal is it never will. But should a situation arise, all parties involved have preached preparation, so they are able to save as much wildlife as possible.

“We’ve not had to deploy in Washington, and I hope we never do,” Hart said.

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