Guest Author - Susan Hopf
When speaking about animals and their preservation the topic of habitat and environment must also be presented. Animals cannot exist if they have no suitable place to live, hunt, breed and eat. The Gulf Coast oil spill has no doubt already impacted many species of fish as it is pulled into and travels along the ocean currents. It will also hit shore at some point in time where it will create an enormous burden on the beaches, marshes and all the wildlife that call these environments home.
We have all seen the pictures of shore birds and otters receiving painstaking baths to rid them of oil from previous spills. They come in covered in black ooze, a well-trained volunteer spends countless hours ridding their feathers or fur of the suffocating poison and the now clean critters head out to a holding pool of clear water to await their return to the wild. These may seem like the lucky ones but that’s only if they did not ingest too much oil where it can reek havoc on the digestive tracks of already vulnerable birds and animals.
In fact the process of saving animals from oil spills is less of a success story than the media would have you believe. Damage from oil is much more far-reaching than you might realize.
Feathered animals must endure many challenges when covered in oil. Oil weighs more than feathers so many birds drown or become easy prey because they cannot fly. Feathers that are covered in oil also do not provide the proper insulation - birds become hypothermic which can cause a life-threatening drop in body mass simply from trying to stay warm. The unavoidable inadvertent ingestion of oil can create ulcers around the mouth and digestive track so animals stop looking for and eating food due to pain.
Furred animals have similar difficulties as those with feathers. Plus, because oil is absorbed through fur and hair, mammals don’t even need to ingest it to become poisoned.
Fish do not have the same disadvantages from oil covering their bodies but they suffer from poisoned food sources as the oil travels along the ocean currents. Fish lay eggs on the ocean floor and on ocean dwelling plants – the eggs become covered in oil and do not hatch. Fish also provide food for other fish and animals – once the fish are poisoned up the food chain the poison goes.
The cost of saving wildlife from an oil spill is estimated to be $4,000 – 5,000 for animals such as sea otters and $600.00 – 800.00 for birds. Some say the cost is too much for the percentage of animals that actually survive despite the efforts. Conservationists say the effort is worth it since the alternative is a distinct loss of genetic diversity. Animals can be bred and reintroduced once the habitat is restored but the genetic material is not as varied as it would be in the natural world.
The Gulf Coast is in for a tough ride. High tides and winds are already creating issues of flooding and shoreline erosion. These same winds and waves are making it difficult or impossible to effectively deploy clean up procedures. It seems Mother Nature has created her own sort of irony – the use of petroleum products has created global warming – global warming has created an increase in flooding on many coastlines – this flooding is acting as a catalyst for the inevitable destruction that occurs when oil meets the natural world. It seems a rather obvious lesson and one that is long past due.