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Animal rehab centers still working after BP spill

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December 15, 2010
— A baby sea turtle escaped from the jaws of a shark, only to get stuck in oil spilled from BP's well in the Gulf of Mexico. A young dolphin apparently was attacked by his mother, then swam into oil.

The animals are among thousands rescued since more than 200 million gallons of oil began gushing from the Macondo well about 50 miles southeast of the Mississippi River Delta, and among dozens still at Gulf Coast rescue centers five months after the well was capped.


Since the Deepwater Horizon rig exploded April 20, rescue officials say 2,079 birds, 456 sea turtles, some terrapins and two dolphins have been plucked from the oil.


Another 2,263 birds, 18 turtles and four dolphins were found dead with oil on them. All are being dissected to tell whether it was the crude from the BP well that killed them.


Caring for the animals can be time-consuming and costly, an ongoing legacy of the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and identifying whether BP is at fault is a complex matter for those working at the centers.


Oil spills can have devastating effects on wildlife. About 20,000 penguins were rescued and washed after the tanker MV Treasure sank in 2000 off the coast of South Africa. In 1989, more than 1,600 birds were rescued after the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska, according to the International Bird Rescue Research Center.


At the Audubon Aquatics Center in New Orleans, staff are rehabilitating a young dolphin that had oil all over his head and body when he was stranded Sept. 2 at Fourchon Beach on the Louisiana coast southwest of the city. But the dolphin apparently had not swallowed or breathed in any oil, said Audubon Nature Institute spokeswoman Meghan Calhoun.


Beneath the oil, tooth scratches covered his body. Another dolphin likely his mother had attacked him, Calhoun said. He was about 2 years old, the age at which dolphin pups leave their mothers, she wrote in an e-mail.


"His debilitation appears to have been caused by his mother, possibly being a little forceful in convincing him he needed to move on," Calhoun said.


The dolphins' muscles seized up in pain, so tightly that he couldn't swim. He needed both physical therapy and muscle therapy, she said.


"We had to show him how to move his tail in an up-and-down fashion instead of side to side" (like a shark), she said.


Both the adolescent dolphin and an adult male dolphin, which was stranded June 19 at Rutherford Beach, had to be held up in the water 24 hours a day until they could swim on their own and then, for a while, while they rested or slept.


The adult dolphin didn't have a drop of oil on him, but was ill and parasite-ridden, Calhoun said. Since he was rescued during the spill, he had to be considered as a possible victim.


About 50 sea turtles are still in captivity. Most had some sort of medical problems beyond those caused by the oil, Calhoun said. The Aquatics Center has 30 of them, including 16 green, 11 Kemp's ridley, one hawksbill and one loggerhead.


Some came in wounded, while others had broken bones, Calhoun said. Only one, a Kemp's ridley turtle, had wounds that clearly showed how it had been hurt in this case, shark bites, she said.


Oiled turtles are scrubbed clean with dish soap and other cleaners, tested for health problems and fed at centers.


With winter approaching, none of the animals will be released until the weather warms up.


Michele Kelley, director of the Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Program, which works with Audubon, said the cost of rehabbing turtles and dolphins at the Aquatics Center so far has reached about $500,000. BP has said it will cover the entire cost but so far has reimbursed only about $100,000, Calhoun said.


BP spokeswoman Hejdi Feick said the company has spent a total of about $35.5 million so far on rescue and rehab of wildlife since the spill began.


About 16 sea turtles are at the Institute of Marine Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Miss., and four are at facilities in Panama City and Orlando, Fla., said Michael Ziccardi, a veterinarian and oiled wildlife expert at the University of California-Davis, and head of the BP spill's sea turtle and marine mammal response.


About five birds are still in rehab: two brown pelicans, a reddish egret, and the laughing gull and tern.


The pelicans, sent to a Florida rehabilitation center in large flight cages, are well enough to be released, according to Rhonda Murgatroyd, hired by BP PLC to supervise all animal rescues. She said a reddish egret is being cared for at the Louisiana Purchase Zoo in Monroe and the two young birds are at Wings of Hope in Livingston.



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