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The Great Penguin Rescue

After an oil spill, should people put in the time and effort to clean up wildlife, or would it be better to just let the animals die?

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Oil spills are a far too common occurrence and whenever one happens we start to question what to do with the wildlife. Should we put in the time and effort to clean the animals up, or would it be better to just let them die? Last June, I wrote:

Some scientists, however, have questioned the value of putting so much effort into saving birds when the benefits are unclear. “It might make us feel better to clean them up and send them back out,” University of California, Davis ornithologist Daniel Anderson told Newsweek. “But there’s a real question of how much it actually does for the birds, aside from prolong their suffering.”

In a reader poll, 83 percent of you said “We should do everything we can to clean them.”

Arguing on the readers’ behalf (to save the animals) is Dyan deNapoli, in the TEDxBoston video above. DeNapoli, a penguin expert with the New England Aquarium, was called in to help when the MV Treasure, carrying iron ore from Brazil to China, sank off the coast of Cape Town, South Africa on June 23, 2000. The ship spilled hundreds of tons of fuel oil into waters close to the island homes of African penguins, and around 20,000 birds had been rescued from the contaminated waters. Luckily, deNapoli and the other scientists who traveled to South Africa to lead the effort had plenty of volunteers to help them clean and feed the birds. And, as you’ll see in the video, they had the advantage of experience, as sad as it was, from another oil spill in the penguins’ territory just six years before.

In the end, they saved about 90 percent of the birds, and after being released into the wild, those birds went on to live as long as never-oiled birds and breed nearly as successfully, deNapoli says. Chicks were even more successful, and now a local seabird rehabilitation center uses the techniques learned during the oil spill to bolster the endangered bird population by rescuing and raising abandoned chicks. Researchers also figured out that it is possible to save birds before the oil reaches them—at one point in 2000, they captured another 20,000 birds and released them several hundred miles away from their homes. By the time they swam back to the island, the oil was gone.

We’re getting better and better at cleaning up after our messes, it seems. But I still think it would be better to not mess it up in the first place.

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About Sarah Zielinski
Sarah Zielinski

Sarah Zielinski is an award-winning science writer and editor. She is a contributing writer in science for Smithsonian.com and blogs at Wild Things, which appears on Science News.

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