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The impact of the California oil spill could have been worse for wildlife

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

Teams along the southern California coastline are continuing their efforts to clear oil from wetlands damaged by the spill. It's been a little more than a week since an underwater pipeline leaked tens of thousands of gallons of crude oil into the Pacific. But the impact to wildlife could have been worse. Fewer birds have been affected because of timing. The spill happened just after nesting season and just before migratory birds made their appearance.

Yesterday I spoke with Michael Ziccardi the director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network at UC Davis. He's helping rescue birds and other animals and explained the scope of this disaster.

MICHAEL ZICCARDI: There was quite a bit of oil out in the environment. We have teams covering the entire area, from Long Beach Harbor all the way down through Carlsbad. So that's three different counties - Los Angeles, Orange and San Diego. They're reporting not as many birds as they had feared initially. But they do say things are getting better every day. And the number of live oiled animals that are out there are actually decreasing in numbers.

MARTINEZ: What are the other animals that are at risk?

ZICCARDI: Basically, every species can be negatively affected due to oil exposure. So the greatest concern for us are the birds because they're uniquely sensitive to oiling. Their feathers keep them warm in an aquatic environment. And when oil gets on those feathers, it allows cold water to seep next to the skin. And for an animal that normally has a body temperature near 106 degrees and has a high metabolic rate, they can get cold. They can start to waste away and so either die or get very, very ill in a matter of days due to that. Marine mammals are also at risk, usually more chronically, though, so due to ingestion of the oil. Those are animals we're going to be tracking over time, though, to see if there is an increase in animals that strand.

MARTINEZ: And, you know, one other thing, Michael, that I was thinking about is that one way or another down the food chain, the wildlife that you're trying to save relies on plants and smaller lifeforms to survive. Have you been able to gauge at all how they are affected by the spill?

ZICCARDI: Yes, you're absolutely right. Basically, oil can affect all levels of the food chain. We are trying to rescue and rehabilitate all those upper vertebrate animals at the end of the food chain. But plankton, invertebrates, all different animals can be affected. That is something that it's going to take a while to understand. Scientists through a natural resource damage assessment process are out there right now collecting samples to come up with an overall estimate, an injury determination for the ecosystem as a whole. And from that, we'll have a much better idea as to the larger impacts throughout that food chain.

MARTINEZ: You know, when we see the animals on television - at least when I see them on television oiled up and suffering, it breaks my heart. But you're right there. I mean, you and your organization, Oiled Wildlife Care Network, you're right there with these animals. You've got your hands on them. I mean, does - do you ever still get heartbroken, or have you done this long enough where it's a job that you have to finish to save these animals?

ZICCARDI: Every single day, every single spill that I've been on, it is a heartbreaking situation. Obviously, animals don't want to be oiled. They're caught in an accident of human cause. But really working hard to care for these animals, to provide them the necessary rehabilitation, the cutting-edge technology applying research to them and really trying to do what we can to reverse the anthropogenic damage that has occurred to them, it is heartbreaking, but it's also the most rewarding thing I've ever done. When you can get an animal that comes in as heavily coated as you mentioned, A, and actually see them fly off or swim off at the end of the spill, there is nothing better than that.

MARTINEZ: Michael Ziccardi, the director of the Oiled Wildlife Care Network - Michael, thank you very much.

ZICCARDI: Well, thank you very much, A. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.