Rescuers gently washing the goo from pelicans make for some of the few hopeful images from the disaster on the Gulf of Mexico, yet some scientists contend those efforts are good for little more than warming hearts.
Critics call bird-washing a wasteful exercise in feel-good futility that simply buys doomed creatures a bit more time. They say the money and man-hours would be better spent restoring wildlife habitat or saving endangered species.
In the seven weeks since oil began erupting from a mile-deep well after a drilling rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico, more than 150 pelicans, gulls, sandwich terns and other birds have been treated at a warehouse-turned-refugee encampment 70 miles south of New Orleans.
A total of 473 birds in the Gulf region have been collected alive with visible oil; 117 oiled birds have been found dead. More are on the way, as oil slicks assault beaches and marshes that serve as breeding areas for many species.
The victims are scrubbed clean and held a week or more to recover. Then a Coast Guard plane flies them to Tampa Bay in Florida for release — far enough away, workers hope, that the birds won't return to oiled waters and get soaked again. Birds treated from this disaster have been tagged, and none has been spotted in oil again.
It's all part of a broader animal care initiative overseen by federal agencies and operated largely by nonprofit groups, with funding from BP PLC. Other centers focus on turtles and marine mammals.
"All of us here taking care of the wildlife feel it's important," said Rhonda Murgatroyd of Wildlife Response Services in Houma, La. "We can't just leave them there — somebody has to take care of them."
A noble sentiment, said Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University. But the hard reality is that many, if not most, oiled creatures probably won't live long after being cleansed and freed, he said.
"Once they've gone through that much stress, particularly with all the human handling and confinement, it's very difficult," Kendall said. "Some species might tolerate it better than others, but when you compare the benefits to the costs ... I am skeptical."
The arm of the federal government that nominally oversees offshore rigs agrees with Kendall, and has for some time.
"Studies are indicating that rescue and cleaning of oiled birds makes no effective contribution to conservation, except conceivably for species with a small world population," the U.S. Minerals Management Service said in a 2002 environmental analysis of proposed Gulf oil drilling projects. "A growing number of studies indicate that current rehabilitation techniques are not effective in returning healthy birds to the wild."
Fewer than 10 percent of brown pelicans that were cleaned and marked for tracing after a 1990 spill in Southern California were accounted for two years later, while more than half the pelicans in a control group could be found, three scientists with the University of California, Davis, reported in a paper published in 1996. The formerly oiled birds also showed no signs of breeding.
Dan Anderson, a professor emeritus of conservation biology at the University of California at Davis who led the study, said last week he still questions how well the rescue missions succeed but doesn't oppose them.
"If nothing else, we're morally obligated to save birds that seem to be savable," Anderson said.
Besides, bird rehabilitation groups have improved their methods the past couple of decades, he said.
A 2002 study by Humboldt State University scientists found that gulls treated after a California spill survived just as well as gulls that were not oiled. Rescue supporters also point to data showing high survival rates for penguins receiving care from a South African foundation that has handled more than 50,000 oiled seabirds since 1968.
Determining the success rate of cleaning and releasing other animals such as turtles and dolphins can be even harder than it is with birds, said Robert MacLean, a veterinarian with the Audubon Nature Institute in New Orleans. He and other wildlife experts spent part of Thursday showing off three Kemp's Ridley turtles that had been found in the oil off Louisiana.
"They seem to be doing well. They have started eating on their own," MacLean said, before cautioning: "We don't know what the long-term effects are going to be from the oil."
Rescue missions can convey a false impression that damage from oil spills can be fixed, said Jim Estes, an ecologist at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who worked on the federal effort to save animals after the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989.
"Oil may be doing a species considerable harm, but rehabilitation won't change that," Estes said. "It will just help a relatively small number of individuals from suffering and dying."
At the Fort Jackson warehouse, where shivering pelicans huddled inside pens awaiting their turn to be cleansed, such criticisms are shrugged off.
"What do you want us to do? Let them die?" said Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center, who has aided oiled animals for 40 years.
Most birds arrive at rescue centers hungry, dehydrated and exhausted, having neglected eating in the frantic struggle to clean themselves. Once a bird is strong enough, two workers cover it in warm vegetable oil to remove the sticky oil, then apply dish soap and scrub parts of its head with a toothbrush.
It's time-consuming and expensive. Cleaning a single pelican can require 300 gallons of water. After the Exxon Valdez, some studies estimated that $15,000 had been spent for each marine bird treated, a figure others said was exaggerated. Scientists with the Marine Wildlife Veterinary Care and Research Center in California said it costs them $600 to $750 to clean a bird.
James Harris, a senior wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service helping care for birds sullied by the current spill, said critics also forget that many rescued animals will produce offspring — especially brown pelicans, which were taken off the federal endangered list only last year.
"It may be one pelican to me," he said, "but it could represent a couple dozen pelicans to my children and could be in the tens of hundreds for my grandchildren."