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Practice makes perfect for oiled bird responders

Contributed by Kat Kerlin

“Do we have an ETA on those sandpipers?” Mike Ziccardi asked into his cell phone at the San Francisco Bay Oiled Wildlife Care and Education Center in Cordelia, Calif.

Ziccardi, a UC Davis wildlife veterinarian, is director of the UC Davis-led Oiled Wildlife Care Network. His phone call was made in the middle of a drill held earlier this summer that drew about 70 of the state’s key oiled wildlife responders.

This was the scenario (and, to repeat, this was only a drill; no real birds took part in it): On the night before the drill, a tanker had released oil into the Carquinez Strait, just west of Cordelia in the San Francisco Bay Area. By mid-morning of the drill, the facility had seen about 40 “virtual” birds — brown pelicans, western gulls, grebes, sandpipers — and were expecting hundreds more. The network and its 30 member organizations had been activated. Among them were responders from International Bird Rescue, WildCare, Lindsay Wildlife Museum, the Marine Mammal Center, and the California Department of Fish and Game.

The Oiled Wildlife Care Network is based out of the UC Davis Wildlife Health Center, which is a program of the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine. The network is the wildlife response arm for the California Department of Fish and Game. The 12,000-square-foot Cordelia facility is one of the largest in the world able to care for oiled animals and one of the few places ready to go in a moment’s notice in the event of an oil spill.

“These drills are absolutely essential to make sure facilities like this — our people, our supplies, our equipment — are available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, in case an oil spill occurs anywhere in the state,“ said Ziccardi.

Even better than the real thing
As the responders went through the drill — assembling drying pens and rescue boxes, taking inventory of medical and food supplies, setting up the washing stations -– they took their roles seriously. But the scene was also relaxed and convivial.

The tone in this spot was quite different in November 2007, following the Cosco Busan oil spill of San Francisco Bay. This facility — and several of these same responders — received and cared for more than 1,000 live oiled birds. The work was constant, exhausting, and not a time for pondering infrastructure.

That, in part, is what this drill was for.

“One of the things we do at these drills is really work through a scenario to try to see what the challenges are at each of our facilities,” said Ziccardi. “If we need to put additional funds, additional efforts into increasing our capacity, we can do that during non-spill time.”

In the world of oiled bird rescue, the fall and winter months are informally considered “oil spill season.” Ocean storms can be especially harsh during these times, creating precarious conditions for oil-carrying vessels.

But whenever the next oil spill occurs off California’s coast, the Oiled Wildlife Care Network will be ready.

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