Animals and Oil Spills

Oil spills have devastating affects on the environment. Perhaps the most heartbreaking consequence of these man-made errors is the subsequent displacement or death of innocent wildlife.

Oil spills can immediately kill various types of sea life in the affected area. Most all types of fish perish instantly when exposed to the toxic sludge. Other animals, like sea birds, become incapacitated by the oil as it penetrates their feathers and renders them unable to fly or properly float. Sea otters, seals, orcas, and virtually any animal you can imagine may easily fall victim to oil spills.

When an oil spill occurs, the animals that are exposed have very little chance of survival without human intervention. Following oil spills, local and international wildlife groups as well as government organizations immediately take action to try to rescue as much of the natural wildlife population as possible. While those animals affected in the immediate area of the oil spill cannot usually be saved, in some cases animals with mild to severe exposure may still be rehabilitated.

Sea birds can be difficult to save, because once the oil has consumed their feathers, they will usually attempt to clean themselves, causing them to ingest potentially deadly amounts of oil. Once the oil has contaminated them to the point where they can no longer effectively fly, they become extremely susceptible to predators. This also poses a risk for their predators that will likely ingest dangerous levels of oil by eating the oil-drenched sea bird. In order for animal rescue workers to adequately rescue a sea bird that has been exposed to an oil spill, they must thoroughly flush all oil from the bird’s eyes and feathers, as well as its intestinal tract. It is also very important to minimize the stress experiences by the bird during the processes of capture, transport and treatment. Birds with high levels of stress are far less likely to survive toxic exposure to oil.

Sea otters and fur seals are the only marine mammals without blubber. Instead, they have incredibly fine fur that keeps them warm. When sea otters and fur seals are exposed to oil spills, the oil disrupts the natural insulation of their fur, causing them to potentially suffer from hypothermia which in most cases will result in death. In addition, similar to the problems faced with sea birds, sea otters will also attempt to groom themselves to remove the oil embedded din their fur, resulting in ingestion of harmful and sometimes fatal amounts of oil. Sea otters, like sea birds, must also be completed flushed of all oil on their bodies and also of any oil that may have been ingested. In order to minimize stress and excess trauma to the otter, they will be slightly sedated during the cleaning process. Often times, otters are tagged with tracking devices before they are released. Research has shown that sea otters will commonly attempt to return to the contaminated areas that they were found in. Because of this, sometimes sea otters are held in captivity for periods of time longer than what is actually necessary, in order to give clean up crews more time to decontaminate the areas affected by the oil spill. Exposed fur seals undergo a similar process.

When seals, sea lions, and other similar animals become exposed to oil spills, they also must complete decontamination processes similar to those of the sea otter in order to be properly rehabilitated before being released back into the wild.