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Introduction and General Information

Members of the public are often highly concerned when they hear about an oil spill, particularly when the spill occurs in their local area and/or when media reports on oiled wildlife associated with the spill. (D183.w1)
  • Oil spills may impact directly on a community, in the form of oiled amenities such as beaches (which affects local people directly and via effects on tourism), and destroyed or tainted resources such as fisheries. 
  • In many cases people want to DO something, and may be highly frustrated by their inability to do so. (P14.7.w3)

Members of the public can play an important role in oiled wildlife response. Their role may be positive or negative. A positive role is more likely if the public are properly educated about their potential roles in oil spill prevention (e.g. how to dispose of unwanted oil in a responsible manner), reporting of oil spills or oiled wildlife casualties, and ways in which they may assist in the event of a spill.

  • The general public is usually extremely interested in oiled wildlife response. (P14.5.w13)
  • Members of the public should be informed of the importance of oiled animals, live or dead, being properly collected and recorded, and encouraged to report dead individuals, not remove or bury them. (D183.w6)
  • N.B.  Untrained people should NOT approach or touch an oiled animal. (W273.Aug03.oil1)
    • If an untrained person attempts to rescue and care for an oiled animal, this may be detrimental or even lethal for the animals, and dangerous for the people involved. (D9, D214.2.w2)
  • In the event of a spill, a publicity campaign should be mounted informing the public about the desirability of leaving "hands-on" response to those with the appropriate expertise. (D214.4.w4)
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In order for actions to be taken to respond to an oil spill, or to individual oiled casualties, it is first necessary for the correct people to be informed about the spill or the existence of the oiled casualties. (D220)

Reporting an oil spill

  • Anyone detecting an oil spill which may harm the environment should contact the relevant authority.
  • In the UK:
    • For inland/fresh water spills, the Environment Agency can be contacted on their 24 hour emergency line: 0800 807060.
    • For spills in UK marine waters, the relevant HM Coastguard station should be contacted. In an emergency, if the number of the Coastguard is not available, telephone 999 and ask for the Coastguard.
    • For spills in ports or harbours, the port or harbour authority should be contacted; if it is not possible to contact the port or harbour authority directly, contact the Coastguard by telephoning 999.

Reporting individual oiled wildlife casualties

  • If an individual oiled animal is detected then it can be reported to an appropriate wildlife rehabilitation organisation.
    • In the UK, this would be the RSPCA or the nearest wildlife rehabilitation centre. 
    • Note that not all wildlife rehabilitation centres have facilities to deal with all species, and not all rehabilitators have the necessary expertise to successfully clean and rehabilitate oiled animals.
    • Many vets will also take in casualty wild animals and often they have links to a local wildlife rehabilitator. However, not all veterinary surgeries have appropriate facilities for housing non-domestic animals.
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Why Rehabilitate Oiled Wildlife?

"Oil spill response is a highly developed organizational and scientific challenge to attempt to limit the ecological, social and economic aspects of an oil spill." Oiled wildlife response is one component of this. (P14.7.w3)

Opinions differ regarding why, and whether, oiled wild animals should be cleaned and rehabilitated. These arguments span a wide range of concerns, from conservation, wildlife health and welfare considerations to financial and legal matters. The major arguments for and against rehabilitation of oiled wildlife are outlined below.



Conservation and biology

  • Protection of affected populations, particularly of endangered species. (D9, P24.335.w12)
  • Biologically, rehabilitation efforts are particularly important in attempting to return to the breeding population individuals of species which are endangered or threatened. (B23.38.w2)
  • "Under some circumstances, caring for oiled wildlife may return a significant percentage of animals, including endangered and threatened species, to their environment and help in the maintenance of populations." (J57.12.w1)
  • Mortality due to oil pollution is not selective but indiscriminate: the fittest individuals for breeding may be impacted just as much as the least fit. (P14.7.w3)
  • Various irregular events (e.g. climate, weather and disease events) can cause significant effects on mortality, survival and breeding and if these occur so frequently that they outstrip the ability of the population to recover through recruitment of immigrants, the population will decline. With small threatened populations exposed to recurrent mortality events, the contribution of oiled wildlife response in reducing mortality may be significant. (P14.7.w3)
  • Lessons learned and techniques developed while rehabilitating individuals of common species, enable more effective rehabilitation individuals of threatened or endangered species, if this becomes necessary. (D9, D159.II.w2, D183.w5, J29.8.w1, P24.335.w12)
    • While some reports suggest that very few birds survive and breed once released following oiling and rehabilitation, other reports indicate much higher rehabilitation rates with released individuals returning to the breeding population. Both release and survival rates may be affected by the species of the casualty, the breeding or biological state of the individual casualties, the type of oil, environmental factors such as weather and temperature, whether care was initiated promptly etc. (D183.w5, P14.7.w16)
    • "To conclude at this time that care of oiled wildlife is of no biological significance, or that it can't be improved, seems inappropriate." (J57.12.w1)
  • Oiled wildlife response has wide reaching conservation benefits, wider than the temporal and geographical limits of an individual oil spill:
    • Successful rehabilitation of small threatened populations is of conservation importance. (P14.7.w3)
    • Lessons learned and practiced by rehabilitating common species allow effective treatment of endangered and threatened species and populations. (P14.7.w3)
    • Well-resourced oiled wildlife rehabilitation programmes can foster broader wildlife health initiatives. (P14.7.w3)
    • Oiled wildlife rehabilitation can encourage conservation advocacy; individuals given the chance to see and care for wild animals often express their sense of privilege, fascination and awe. There is an important opportunity to pass on to such people conservation information which may have local benefit. (P14.7.w3)
  • Oiled animals (alive or dead) need to be picked up to prevent their remaining in the environment as a continuing source of oil contamination to conspecifics, predators, scavengers, humans and the environment. Live animals must then either be treated and cared for, or euthanased. (J57.12.w1)
    • Even if there are no resources available for effective rehabilitation, euthanasia and collection of carcasses is still required, to prevent secondary contamination of further animals, unless this is not possible for reasons of human safety. (D183.w5)
  • Resources used in oiled wildlife response are generally not available for other conservation actions; (P14.7.w3)
  • Oiled wildlife also present a research opportunity, with the chance to gain information on the species. (D159.II.w2)
  • It is suggested that only a tiny proportion of oiled birds are rescued, cleaned and released, those which are released generally do not survive, and that therefore oiled wildlife response makes no contribution to conservation. (D214.4.w4, J313.1.w1, P24.335.w12)
  • It has been suggested that cleaning oiled birds, even if successful, is not significant in population terms, only serves human sentimental values, and uses resources that could be better spent on conservation measures (D159.II.w2). 
  • Oiled birds, even if cleaned and returned to the population, may not reproduce. (D183.w5)
  • Some people consider that money spent rehabilitating oiled animals would be better used for habitat management and for mitigation of other factors impacting wildlife populations. (P24.335.w12)
  • Rehabilitation concentrates only on individuals, not on species, population and ecosystem conservation. (D159.II.w2)



  • The costs of oiled wildlife response are less than 5%, and usually only 1% to 2% of total costs for oil spill cleanup. (J29.8.w1, J57.12.w1)
    • Very high costs per rehabilitated animal ($80,000) are quoted for Enhydra lutris - Sea otter rehabilitation during the Exxon Valdez spill, however this figure is derived by including capital costs of building four rehabilitation centres in an emergency, use of private helicopters and boats for transport, and wages of people involved in activities not related to animal care. (J57.12.w1)
  • Cleaning oiled animals is expensive. (D183.w5)
  • Costs can be very high: it has been estimated that, following the Exxon Valdez spill, US $80,000 was spent per rehabilitated Enhydra lutris - Sea otter. (J22.254.w1, J57.12.w2)

Public Opinion

  • There is public expectation that concerted efforts will be undertaken to restore the wildlife and environment, including by treatment and rehabilitation of oiled individuals. (P14.7.w3)
  • There is strong support for oiled wildlife rehabilitation from risk-source interest groups (shipping transport, fisheries, the oil industry) and from communities (as indicated by donations, volunteer participation, and the subscriber bases of relevant NGOs). (J57.12.w1, P14.7.w3 )
  • Good public relations: oiled wildlife response is a very visible part of oil spill response. (D9)
    • To many members of the public, each individual oiled animal provokes an emotional response and concern for that animal's welfare, whether the animal is of a common or endangered species. (D9)
  • Oiled wildlife response also provides "a real and valuable outlet for community anxiety in oil spill events", helping to reduce the feelings of hopelessness and victimisation which may result from the scale of environmental damage. (P14.7.w3)
  • Unprofessional and clumsy interference will not be acceptable to the public. (D183.w5)



  • In many countries (e.g. USA) there is a strong legal basis, and even requirement, for wildlife rehabilitation following an oil spill. (D159.II.w2, P14.7.w3)
  • In some countries legislation requires that companies responsible for oil spills make provision for the rehabilitation of oiled wildlife. (D9, J29.8.w1)
  • In some countries there is strict legal prohibition against interfering with wildlife. (D183.w5)


  • There is an ethical responsibility for humans to mitigate the adverse effects of human actions (such as oil spills) on the individual animal as well as the environment. Additionally, since we have the ability to alleviate suffering of oiled animals, we should do so. D183.w5)
  • On philosophical or moral grounds, oiled wildlife rehabilitation provides a humane response to the fact that wild animals have been harmed through human activities. (B23.38.w2, D159.II.w2, J29.8.w1, P24.335.w12)
  • "There is a moral imperative that a human-induced catastrophe and its effects on wildlife, such as an oil spill, should be remedied by people." (P14.7.w3)
  • Rehabilitation of oiled wildlife causes pain and suffering; animals unlikely to survive should be euthanased. (D183.w5)


  • For humane reasons, wild animals oiled due to human actions or mistakes should be rehabilitated. (D159.II.w2)
  • Avoiding well-meant but potentially harmful actions by the public:
    • If no action is taken, well-intentioned individuals may try to capture and care for oiled animals, which may be detrimental or even lethal for the animals, and dangerous for the people involved. (D9, D183.w5, J29.8.w1, P24.335.w12)
  • In some countries, shooting oiled birds is considered to be the most humane response, to minimise suffering. (D183.w5)
  • For oil spills in remote, inaccessible areas, where implementing rescue and rehabilitation is impossible, humane killing of oiled wildlife is appropriate. (D60.6.w6)

Wildlife Health

  • The risk that rehabilitation may result in release of a novel disease into a naive wild population is real and should not be ignored; however, risk analysis is employed to minimise this risk, although inputs into such risk analysis are limited by lack of knowledge of the health status of the wild populations in question. (P14.7.w3)
    • Risks can be minimised by basic quarantine procedures, including preventing direct or indirect contact with domestic animals, good sanitation, general health screening and specific screening of animals for relevant diseases prior to release. (B377.13.w13)
  • There is a risk that rehabilitation may result in release of a novel disease into a naive wild population. (B377.13.w13, D159.II.w2, P14.7.w3)


For: Against:

N.B. When oiled wildlife response does occur, it is important that it is carried out to the highest standards possible and with the maximum information gained from the response.

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Volunteering plays two important and interlinked roles in the event of an oiled wildlife response:
  • Volunteers can provide critical manpower assistance to oiled wildlife response efforts. (D183.w5, P14.5.w5, P14.5.w13)
  • Volunteering also provides something that individuals can do in the face of an oil spill. (D183.w5)
  • While direct hands-on work with animals gains most of the publicity during an oiled wildlife response, there are many other activities which are required to support this work. Individuals who have not received training to handle animals, nevertheless may be able to assist in many other ways such as:
    • Provision of first-aid (depending on training);
    • Manning telephone lines;
    • Record keeping;
    • Assisting with logistics e.g. sorting donated newspapers and towels;
    • Facility construction and maintenance
    • Etc.

    (B363.3.w3, D60.8.w8, P14.5.w13)

  • The importance of volunteers who are prepared to undertake administrative tasks, such as answering telephones, running errands, keeping records, organising supplies) and other support tasks such as driving transport vehicles, preparing food and cleaning pens, should not be underestimated. (D60.8.w8)

Further information on roles of volunteers is provided in: Oiled Wildlife Facility and Staffing Requirements - Personnel

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Provision of Supplies

During an oil spill incident in which large numbers of wildlife casualties are oiled and are captured for rehabilitation, large quantities of a number of items are needed for animal care and cleaning, including:
  • Newspapers;
  • Towels;
  • Clean (unused!) toothbrushes (used in cleaning birds);

In addition, if there are large numbers of volunteers then these volunteers need drinks and food.

Members of the public may be able to assist with these needs. 

  • N.B. Needs vary among spills. People wishing to assist by donating items should watch for announcements in the local media regarding what is needed. (W273.Aug03.oil1)
  • A "wish list" of supplies which can be donated should be made available for personnel answering telephone calls from the public, and in the visitors' reception area. (D32.2.w2)
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Preventing Oil Spillages

Oil Containment

When oil is spilled, actions should be taken to reduce its spread. (B20.13.w10)


For stored oil an important method of preventing spilled oil from reaching the environment, particularly the aquatic environment where it is most likely to contaminate wildlife, is by the use of bunds.

  • A bund is a secondary containment structure with raised walls, designed to contain spilled oil immediately outside the original storage vessel. (D209)
  • In the UK there are regulations requiring that oil storage tanks over a certain size (industrial, commercial and institutional sites storing more than 200 litres of oil, domestic sites storing more than 3,500 litres) be bunded, either by using a bund which is designed as part of the storage tank, or by placing the tank within a concrete bund. (D209, D168)

It is important to ensure that:

  • The bund wall and base are impervious to oil and water and are regularly checked for leaks. (D168, W39.Sept03.w1, W39.15Feb05.w1, W39.15Feb05.w2)
  • Valves and pipes are contained within the bund. (D209, D168, W39.Sept03.w1, W39.15Feb05.w1, W39.15Feb05.w2)
  • There is no drain which would allow oil to escape from the bund. (D209, D168, W39.Sept03.w1, W39.15Feb05.w2)
  • The bund capacity is 110% of the volume of the tank, (D209, D168, W39.15Feb05.w1) or for bunds around several storage containers, 110% of the volume of the largest tank or 25% of the total capacity of the tanks, whichever is the greater. (D209, W39.Sept03.w1)
  • The vent pipe from the tank faces down into the bund. (D209, D168, W39.15Feb05.w1)

Drip trays:

  • A drip tray is another type of secondary container designed and placed to catch oil leaking from a primary storage container, its ancillary pipework and associated equipment. It may be used on mobile oil bowsers or for one or more oil drums. (D209, D168, W39.Sept03.w1)

Containment of spilled oil in the environment: 

  • Whenever possible, spilled oil should be controlled and prevented from reaching important habitats, for example by booming (see: Preventing Oiling of Wildlife - Booms ). (D183.w5)
  • In the immediate vicinity of a spill on land, sandbags or earth can be used to prevent spilled oil from reaching watercourses, including drains. (W39.15Feb05.w1, W39.15Feb05.w2)
  • Spilled oil should NOT be hosed down into drains or ditches. (W39.15Feb05.w1, W39.15Feb05.w2)
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Responsible Oil Disposal

Large scale oil spills, for example from grounded ships, are the most visible face of spilled oil. However, large amounts of the oil which enters the environment and oils wild animals, comes from small spills, and from many different sources such as cooking or car engine oils tipped into surface drains. Most surface drains run more or less directly to a stream or river, so oil poured into such a drain will contaminate that watercourse. (W39.15Feb05.w1) Even small spills of either petroleum or non-petroleum oil can cause significant mortality due to oiling of birds. (J318.24.w1) A considerable amount of chronic oiling could be prevented by education about responsible oil disposal. 

The Environment Agency's Oil Care Code makes a number of suggestions regarding ways in which each individual can ensure that they are disposing of waste oil in a responsible manner, to minimise the risks of impact on the environment, including oiling of wildlife and habitats. These include the following recommendations for disposal of home oils: (W39.15Feb05.w1)

  • Do not pour used engine oil down the drain, but take it to an oil bank for recycling. In the UK the Freephone number 0800 66 33 66 will provide information on the nearest oil recycling bank. (W39.15Feb05.w1)
    • N.B. Most surface drains connect directly to a stream or river, therefore oil poured down the drain will directly pollute that stream or river. (W39.15Feb05.w1)
  • Avoid mixing oil with paint, solvent etc. as this makes it very difficult to recycle the oil. (W39.15Feb05.w1)
  • If using home heating oil, regularly check the oil tank and pipes for leaks, and remember that a sudden increase in the amount of oil used may indicate a leak. (W39.15Feb05.w1)
  • Waste oil should not be burnt on a bonfire. (W39.15Feb05.w1)

If a leak does occur, the oil should never be hosed down a drain or into a watercourse. Instead, earth or sandbags should be used to try to contain the oil. (W39.15Feb05.w1)

Further information may be obtained from the Environment Agency's website or by telephoning their General Enquiry Line: 0845 9333111.

The leaflet "Oil Care at Work" provides basic advice regarding avoiding oil spills on work sites including:

  • "Site your storage tank within an oil tight bund wall on an impervious base. Make sure that valves and pipes are contained within the bund.
  • Make sure that the bund has no drain which would allow oil to escape.
  • Donít overfill your tank, check the amount of oil already in the tank before receiving a delivery.
  • Supervise all deliveries, stop the delivery if there are any leaks or overflows.
  • Clearly mark all pipework to show the type of oil and where it leads, and lock all valves and gauges securely after a delivery."


  • If an oil leak does occur, use sandbags or earth to try to stop the oil from entering drains or watercourses and do NOT hose it down. (W39.15Feb05.w2)
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Authors & Referees

Authors Debra Bourne MA VetMB PhD MRCVS (V.w5)
Referee Dr Virginia Pierce (V.w73)

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