Gloved hands gingerly cleaning oil off docile animals looks sweet in dish soap commercials. In reality, animals caught in oil spills can be anything but receptive to help from humans.
"(The animals) are not like domestics that you can cuddle like kittens in your arms," says Nancy Torcson, director of Clearwater Wildlife Sanctuary. "You're dealing with an animal who, at any moment, is ready to defend itself."
Torcson says interacting with distressed animals means learning "to think as if we're that wildlife creature," and Clearwater, the wildlife rehabilitation center she founded in Covington, teaches volunteers to do just that. The center trains people to help injured wildlife, then dispatches the certified volunteers to facilities around the Gulf Coast.
The center created a three-month program encompassing the textbook and practical training needed to work with oiled and injured animals. The program enables participants to qualify for BP's Hazmat training, and Clearwater's staff helps volunteers prepare for a BP Hazmat certification test toward the end of the session. The program culminates in an internship that provides hands-on experience with wildlife.
Before, those interested in becoming wildlife rehabilitators had to seek out apprenticeships and information independently — Clearwater provides all those resources in one program. Also, prospective animal rehabilitators normally have to obtain a Migratory Birds Permit from U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services, but volunteers are covered by Clearwater's permit after completing the program.
Trainees also benefit from the knowledge of Clearwater's staff members, who already have completed training and have experienced Gulf oil disaster recovery firsthand.
"We've gone through all that, we've been to the facilities," Torcson says. "It can get confusing, because it's a long chain of command, so (volunteers) have to know where they fall."
Working toward the goal of training volunteers to think like the animals they encounter, the program covers a wealth of information within the three-month course. Volunteers learn what to expect at oil sites, traits of animals they will encounter, and how to approach creatures that instinctively see humans as predators.
"It's basically a crime scene," Torcson says of oil sites. "The animals have to be well-documented, washed, dried and cared for until they can be released." Just the process of stabilizing a traumatized animal can take a long time, and these birds have to be strong enough to be handled.
"People think, 'Why not just wash (birds) right there on the beach?' They really need a lot of recovery time before they can even be washed ... so they can handle the stress," Torcson says. "We wash every feather, all around the eyes, in their mouths. It's a very stressful experience for a bird who has never been around a human before."
Rehabilitators dealing with distressed birds also need to know the defense mechanisms of the animal, its signs of comfort and distress, what the animal eats, if it carries any diseases that can be passed to humans, and how to simulate its natural habitat in a care setting. Everything from the kind of surface a bird normally stands on to the way it eats its food all factor in to birds' simulated homes.
The work is very demanding; it often requires lots of cleaning and for rehabilitators to work in intense heat for long periods of time. But Torcson describes providing animals with a second chance as "incredibly rewarding." Many times, because the oil is crude and not refined, birds rescued from the disaster have a shot at survival.
"With crude oil, (birds) can't fly, can preen, can't regulate, can't hunt or fly to get away from predators," she says. "But because they're not having multi-system organ failure, the survival rate is higher if they're found."
The center already has 52 volunteers from its most recent session trained and ready to go to oiled bird facilities. Its next scheduled session begins Sept. 18. Since Clearwater is a charity, it relies on donations and seeks underwriters to offer the training program for free.
Even before the BP oil disaster, the sanctuary was used to dealing with high volume: it treats 3- to 5,000 injured, orphaned and distressed animals a year at its four facilities. The center accepts most species of native wildlife, encountering everything from reptiles, to deer, to falcons with a variety of injuries. Torcson, a retired New Orleans Public Schools administrator, created Clearwater nearly 25 years ago as a hobby, but it has grown exponentially since then. Besides training volunteers, Clearwater provides educational opportunities to students from area schools.
"It's very rewarding to pass on this love of the earth and animals," Torcson says.
Call (985) 892-2500 for details about volunteering with Clearwater.