As the wildlife rehabilitation centers in Fort Jackson and Grand Isle continue to have to turn away volunteers who are not certified to work with animals rescued from the Gulf oil spill, the volunteers at one north shore facility are having a completely different experience.
The Clearwater Wildlife Sanctuary, a licensed wildlife rehabilitation and education center with several locations, is caring for two rescued pelicans at a Covington school. For volunteer Anna White the hardest part has been keeping up with their eating habits.
“They have a voracious appetite,” said White, who drives to various places twice each day to find fresh dead fish for the pelicans. “It’s become a full-time job, but they’re every bit worth it.”
When the birds first arrived in Covington, however, they were not eating on their own.
“For the first week we had to feed them nasty fish smoothies through tubes,” said Liz Bragdon, another Clearwater volunteer.
The pelicans live in a barn with other animals that are part of the school’s wildlife education program, a satellite program created by Nancy Torcson, Clearwater’s director and a licensed rehabilitator.
While Bragdon’s work with Clearwater has put her up-close with pelicans, she said that’s not necessarily the case at Fort Jackson, where she volunteered last weekend.
“You walk in and you have no idea what might happen, because you might be cleaning pelicans or you might be mopping floors,” she said. “I moved pelicans from one cafe to another and held the ones that needed to be hydrated while they were tubefed.”
Bragdon’s training through Clearwater has qualified her to work with the injured wildlife. She also had to complete an online hazardous material course and fill out various forms before she could work in the Fort Jackson facility.
While the tight regulations have greatly restricted the number of people who can work with the wildlife — and have left many would-be volunteers frustrated — the regulations are for the benefit of the birds, said Clearwater’s Elizabeth Bell, who coordinates efforts to support volunteers going to Fort Jackson.
“It really does take a lot of effort to care for the pelicans and stabilize them,” she said. “It’s essential that anyone who is there has as much experience as possible.”
Bell recently spent three days at Fort Jackson helping to assess the medical conditions of rescued birds as they arrived. She said the experience was “amazing” and the operation was well-coordinated. Her favorite part, though, was seeing the birds clean and ready to be released.
“We would carry them to this outside pen with a pool and they would be flapping their wings,” she said. “It was incredible to see them oil-free and happy again.”
Unfortunately, the story is different for two pelicans at the Clearwater facility. Even though they were rescued from the spill, Torcson said the two are “permanent nonreleasables” because of injuries sustained before the disaster. So, once the two pelicans have been fully rehabilitated, they will become “permanent professors and educators.”
Meanwhile, Torcson and her volunteers are spending time at the school getting to know their charges, though at first the pelicans struggled with the transition from the wild to being in captivity.
“You can imagine how you would be if aliens abducted you and brought you to a different planet,” Bragdon said. “You’d think you were being dissected.”
Now that the pelicans have had time to adjust, the relationships with their caretakers have improved.
“There’s an understanding that develops between the human and the animal,” said Torcson, who trained at the Audubon Zoo. “It’s not impersonal, and they learn that you’re there to help them.”
Giving them attention is key, Bragdon said.
“Most pelicans like a little attention,” she said. “They’re very intellgent and have a lot of personality.”
Bragdon expects the Clearwater center will receive more pelicans from Fort Jackson in need of rehabilitation.
Torcson has assisted with the wildlife rehabilitation efforts since the Louisiana Wildlife Rehabilitators Association asked to direct the oil spill response, and she has since been contacting all of the animal rehabilitators in the state. In addition, she has been to Fort Jackson and Grand Isle to help log the birds as they come off the boats.
About 45 of Clearwater’s volunteers have the necessary experience for working with the pelicans, according to Torcson.
“We were ready to go when the spill happened,” she said. “I was happy we had a ready corps of people.”
Torcson said Clearwater will start new training programs and the center welcomes anyone who wants to become certified.
Though the Clearwater volunteers are thankful for the opportunity to house and help the two brown pelicans, Torcson continues to think about those that will never be rescued.
“My heart grieves for the ones that will never be brought in, that will just sink to the bottom of the ocean and the marsh. We’re grateful we can work with the ones found at the ‘tip of the iceberg,'” she said