A Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill follow up by Patrick Hogan:
I just received word that back in January, 2011 a brown pelican was spotted in Port Isabel, Texas, with a pink band on its leg - a post-release identifying marker from the Deepwater Horizon Spill, number C-97.
To anyone else that band number may not have any significance, but to those of us who spent our summer months in the heat of Louisiana, working long hours to rescue, clean and rehabilitate oiled birds, it means everything.
As a rule we do not name our wild patients, however, BRPE-C-97, was known by a select few as "Micro-Baby", the smallest (and unforgettably cutest) of the young pelicans received during the spill.
It was just about a year ago that this baby pelican was recovered from one of the nesting colonies off Grande Isle, LA. On admission to the Fort Jackson Oiled Wildlife Center, he was found to have a fracture to one of his wings. His wings were so small and fragile that a popsicle stick was the only thing suitable to stabilize the break with.
For almost a week, the baby pelican was kept in the Center's stabilization area and hand fed, as he was too young to self-feed. He was then carefully washed to remove the oil and soon graduated to an outdoor enclosure.
Very quickly, this baby pelican was winning the admiration of everyone for cute, friendly and peculiar behavior. This is when he became affectionately known as "Micro-baby".
Micro-baby required hand-feeding for a couple of weeks. Everyone was eager to be the person feeding.
Unfortunately, through such close contact with multiple caregivers, his 'friendly' behavior continued and soon became a concern.
Micro was put on 'Staff Only' feedings, with a focus on getting him to self-feed. He should be eating on his own and associating with pelicans more than humans.
As the weeks went on, Micro-baby began to self-feed, but had yet to start socializing with pelicans; he maintained an obvious 'happy' reaction when a human entered the aviary to feed or clean.
Soon, the talk of Micro became very serious. A decision had to be made. Was he imprinted or habituated, and if so, was it reversible? If not, there were only 2 options - neither was good. Micro would either be euthanized or placed in a captive environment for the rest of his life.
For many wildlife rehabilitators, zoos are looked on unfavorably. In zoos, while animals may be provided basic necessities, like food, shelter, and water - which can make people feel like the animal is getting what it needs, wild animals are not able to live free and wild as they are meant to, and as they deserve. Instead they are on display where they are viewed and essentially harassed by humans all day. Placing a wild animal into a zoo may be a life-sparing decision, it condemns an animal to lifelong imprisonment, which in turn may be worse. Read more about the reality of life behind bars in Thought to Exist in the Wild: Awakening from the Nightmare of Zoos, by Derrick Jensen. Also, check out this wonderful piece, Quality of Life, by wildlife rehabilitator, Kay McKeever, (for $1.00 through NWRA).
Being that Micro was headed down a 'bad road' either way, we came up with a plan to reverse his behavior. "Scary Human", was to be done 3 times a day. This consisted of Staff pursuing Micro around in his aviary, often capturing him and gently tossing it into the pool. This 'treatment' would go on for a minute or two until Micro would try hard to escape.
It felt horrible each time we had to do this procedure. We always walked away with a 'dirty feeling', as we had just scared, molested and horrified a poor baby pelican. But, we know this counter-intuitive measure was Micro's only chance to to live wild.
After a few weeks of Scary Human, Micro changed - he was quick to evade humans when they entered his enclosure and he stopped making his usual 'Happy To See You' begging calls.
Behavior evaluations were implemented in succeeding weeks and finally the decision was made to release him along with the rest of the pelicans in his aviary on October 6th, 2010. You cannot believe the relief we felt knowing he'd be given the chance for freedom.
BRPE-C-97 was very lucky. He had been in the care of skilled rehabilitators who knew that no matter how cute and precious, a wild animal's only chance for freedom is ONLY if they are kept wild. If they become at all attached to people, their chances of survival can be slim to none.