Bird Washing Won't Help and Other Hard Truths About the Oil Spill

Images of cleanup crews scrubbing the oil-soaked bodies of brown pelicans caught in the aftermath of the worst oil spill in U.S. history have pulled at national heart strings since oil from BP's (BP) deadly April 20 blast in the Gulf of Mexico started spreading. Such efforts may, however, be pointless.

According to the Associated Press, that's been the conclusion of experts since at least 2002. Many of the oiled wildlife -- pelicans, gulls and other birds -- probably won't live long after being treated because they've undergone a considerable amount of stress, says Ron Kendall, director of the Institute of Environmental and Human Health at Texas Tech University. David Mizejewsk, a naturalist with the National Wildlife Federation, notes that washing birds is still worth doing because of a moral and ethical obligation to help them.

"It is true that survival rates can be low," he says, adding that many species in the Gulf were threatened or endangered before the spill. "Quite honestly, every individual counts."

National Audubon Society scientist Greg Butcher also supports bird washing, arguing that "these birds are kind of helpless victims of the oil" and that success rates, while not great, have improved over the years. "It is much more important to fix these habitats."

Muted Response

What the dispute over bird-washing highlights is the enormous complexity of disaster in the Gulf. The calamity that BP must now clean up is so immense it's hard to get one's head around it. Scientists, who yesterday hiked their projections of the spill's size, now estimate that 87 million gallons have gushed into the Gulf. That's about six times the size of the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill.

Even so, the disaster has largely gotten a muted response from potential donors from the celebrity world. Some corporations, perhaps sensing a ripe PR moment, are filling the void. Chevron (CVX) donated $750,000 to the Audubon Society. Borders (BKS) plans to kick in 10% of sales made this weekend to support restoration in the Gulf. So far, according to one estimate, more than $4 million has been pledged to aid the cleanup and relief efforts.

The National Wildlife Federation has launched a Gulf Oil Spill Restoration Fund, which accepts $10 donations from people who text "wildlife" to 20222 to support its work in the region. The money is being used to set up the Gulf Coast Surveillance Team Network to spot distressed wildlife and report it to the appropriate authorities.

The Natural Resources Defense Council initiated the Gulf Coast Recovery Fund on Monday, raising funds for a local organization. Robert Redford has done a video for the group. NRDC officials are planning to step up their advertising efforts, according to Kate Slusark, a spokeswoman.

Prospective donors shouldn't forget local groups such as Protect Our Coastline, which is raising funds to help fisherman, shrimpers and wildlife of the Louisiana coast.

Aid Picking Up

"We've gotten tremendous response from around the country, and the pace of contributions has steadily increased as the situation in the Gulf of Mexico has worsened," Amy Jones, a spokeswoman for Protect Our Coastline, says in an email. "The people of Louisiana desperately need help for what is a long-term problem."

Indeed, the stress of the spill is already affecting Gulf Coast residents. Officials from the Salvation Army say they've gotten more requests for help. As I wrote recently, the social consequences of the disaster may be felt for years to come.

Since the spill, Catholic Charities of New Orleans has served 8,000 people at its five centers serving the affected area. Another 1,000 have gotten crisis counseling. "Unfortunately, we had a lot of experience with crisis counseling following Hurricane Katrina," says Margaret Dubuisson, a spokeswoman for the group.

Still, many people are channeling their energies into things that are counterproductive, such as boycotting BP gas stations, which are largely owned by independent business owners. Others are simply getting in over their heads. Florida resident Deborah Ponceti started a group called Friends of Florida to help with the cleanup. The problem, as the St. Petersburg Times noted, is that Ponceti didn't get the required state license before soliciting funds from the public.

While every dollar helps, of course, donors are urged to do their homework before writing a check.

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