Animals that arrive on shore alive but oiled and debilitated have a greatly reduced chance of survival, although they may live for days, weeks or even months before they die. A wildlife response should include well-designed and predefined plans to ensure the welfare of the affected animals. Alternative responses include:
- Leaving animals in place. This option may need to be considered based on:
- Access to the site
- Availability of facilities for treating animals-particularly large, dangerous species such as polar bears
- Minimising impact on mammals (seal, sea lions, walrus) hauled out together. Capture atttempts can lead to stampeding resulting in injuries, separation of mothers and young, and/or unoiled animals being chased into oiled areas.
- Human health and safety issues
- Euthanising animals at the response site. This option may need to be considered based on:
- Condition of the animals
- Availability of facilities and personnel for cleaning and rehabilitating
- Local or national policies and standard procedures
- Capturing and rehabilitating those animals that still have a chance of survival, according to professional judgment.
Euthanasia or rehabilitation?
Once the choice to remove animals from the beach has been made, the decision making process continues. If no appropriate care facilities are in place or easily constructed, euthanasia may be necessary. But, euthanasia as the only response option is often too narrow an approach: it allows no leeway in the case of species of conservation interest, or in other unforeseen circumstances.
In addition, the public may demand that rehabilitation is undertaken for all oil-affected wildlife (members of the public often take their own initiative to do so if they see no signs of centrally coordinated efforts). However, allowing any interested group or individual the possibility to attempt the rehabilitation of any animal that they collect regardless of its species, its physical condition on arrival or its expected survival is also not an ideal solution, as animals may suffer from inappropriate care.
In practice, having both options available and making the related decisions subject to clear guidelines helps the officers charged with managing oiled wildlife response to ensure best animal welfare. The assessment as to whether or not the rehabilitation process is in the best interest of the animal must be made by qualified experts, based on reliable scientific evidence. Where species of conservation concern are involved, decisions often have to be made on a case-by-case basis (e.g. individual welfare versus conservation value).
Considerations when rehabilitation is undertaken
Rehabilitation of oiled animals is ideally carried out professionally, under a central command and coordination, with clear objectives and the use of proven methodologies, by, or under the supervision of, qualified experts. Even then, any attempt to rehabilitate wildlife will extend the suffering of the individual animal, at least until the moment of successful release. The extended suffering is related to:
- the external oil preventing the animal from being able to behave normally;
- the internal effects of swallowed oil and/or inhaled fumes making the animal sick;
- being taken into captivity and exposed to the proximity of human beings and frequent disturbances as a result of the treatment process.
These factors individually or in combination may be potentially lethal for some animals (or some sensitive species), and some animals may die in care. In addition, if the rehabilitation has not been fully completed before the animal is released, it may die some time after release.
A successful rehabilitation can, however, help to minimise the effects of an oil spill on wildlife populations. Two guidance documents provide further insight into the rehabilitation process and the planning necessary to increase the potential for animals to be released and survive longer term:
- Handbook on good practice for oiled wildlife rehabilitation
- Wildlife Response Preparedness: Good practice guidelines for incident management and emergency response personnel
However, these documents alone are not enough. Guidance from experienced oiled wildlife response personnel provides further depth of information on the science of problem-solving under everchanging circumstances, and insight into the finer points of assessing animals in care, from admission through release. Over time experienced responders develop an eye for subtle details that may increase survival rates on both the individual animal level and from a group health perspective.
A properly rehabilitated animal may join or re-join the breeding population. This, not merely survival to release, should be the ultimate goal of the rehabilitation process.