Texas A&M University’s College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences is doing its part to assist in the oil spill near the Houston Ship Channel, dispatching one of its most prominent researchers to aid in the effort to save wildlife that has been contaminated by the near 168,000 gallons of crude that has affected the waterway’s natural habitat. Dr. Jill Heatley, an associate professor in the College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences, is now part of an emergency response team headed by the Wildlife Center of Texas, which is responding to the medical needs of dozens of oil-soaked birds — the first to be immediately affected by the spill.
Officials anticipate that, because the oil spill occurred at a place and time where thousands of migratory birds make their way through as part of their annual northern migration pattern, additional animals are bound to be affected by the disaster, and will in turn need urgent medical care as a result of the spill as well. In light of this concern, cleanup crews are focusing their efforts on containing the oil spill so that it does not reach the marshlands, where the majority of these birds land and roost while briefly inhabiting the Houston waterway.
While efforts are being made to mitigate additional harm done to wildlife, Dr. Heatley explained in a Texas A&M press release that removing oil from these birds’ plumage is a slow, tedious process that begins with the daunting task of capturing and housing wild birds that are in no way domesticated: “First of all, we often have to go out and capture the bird and bring it back to shore because if the bird is soaked, it is really struggling,” she explained. From there, “We examine the bird to see if it is injured in any way, and if not, then we begin the cleaning process. It involves wiping the oil off the bird, then soaking it in a mixture of mild detergents and water.”
However, it is not a one-step process in many cases: “Many times, these steps have to be repeated over and over if there is a lot of oil present,” she adds. “That’s why it can take a while for each bird to get fully cleaned. It can be a time-consuming process but it is absolutely necessary.”
Dr. Heatley indicated that a wide range of bird types have already been affected, or could be in the coming days and weeks, including pelicans, herons, ducks, cormorants, and virtually any other kind of sea bird that inhabits the region. She also expects that marine life could be affected as well.