Massey vets on hand for oil spill response

New Zealand’s Massey University has led the wildlife response to the oil spill caused by the grounding of the Rena cargo ship on Astrolabe reef at the entrance to the port of Tauranga, in October.

The National Oiled Wildlife Response Team is trained, managed and co-ordinated by specialists at the university’s New Zealand Wildlife Health Centre in Palmerston North, under contract to Maritime New Zealand.

Its members include vets, pathologists and wildlife technicians. Regional councils around the country also contribute personnel.

Wildlife veterinarians Kerri Morgan and Helen McConnell co-ordinate the wildlife response and are assisted by other university veterinary staff, including Brett Gartrell and veterinary residents and technicians.

Gartrell, who manages the wildlife response facility, said staff have treated more than 400 animals at the centre.

“We have a three stage system to stabilise, clean and then rehabilitate animals,” he said. “All animals affected by the oil are washed but it takes a number of days for them to regain waterproofing.”

Birds with specific health issues are held in an intensive care unit led by one of four Massey vets. Massey wildlife veterinarian Micah Jensen said the birds the unit have treated have had a range of ailments.

“There are birds that have picked up respiratory infections, one had a cloacal prolapse, another had a corneal ulcer,” Jensen said.Birds in the unit are monitored closely. “We give them all checks every morning and evening,” she said. “They get excellent intensive care, as we are around the patients all day long.”

Jensen, who is one of four wildlife veterinarians in Massey’s resident program, said the experience at the facility was invaluable.

“As a wildlife vet resident it is intensely rewarding to do this kind of work,” she said. “The penguins are adorable, they are very full of character and are really nice to work with. Each one is quite individual and they are really personable, spirited and vocal. They let you know if you’re doing something they don’t like – there’s no grey area.”

Massey wildlife technician Pauline Conayne, who manages much of the wildlife operation’s rosters and logistics, said caring for the birds once they are washed and healthy is a big job.

“The penguins all need to be fed twice daily,” she said. “It takes about three hours for each feed. We’re going through more than 160kg of anchovies a day, and all of the penguins have to be hand fed. Penguins won’t eat dead fish themselves so it takes time for us to feed them by hand.”

As well as feeding, the birds are also weighed and checked regularly. “We need to keep an eye on every individual and ensure they’re dealing well with captivity.”

The Massey University-led wildlife response to the oil spill has been praised as one of the quickest in the world, thanks to excellent foresight and planning systems.

Alternate Wildlife Centre manager Curt Clumpner, who has worked on numerous oil spills since the Exxon Valdez Alaska disaster, said New Zealand’s response was one of the quickest he had seen.

“The speed of response in New Zealand is among the top two or three countries in the world,” said Clumpner, an American from International Bird Rescue. “The wildlife response centre was set up and ready to clean birds within a day of the grounding. That’s incredibly quick compared to other spills I’ve been involved in.

“The team at Massey University has been planning for this for years and they have been constantly updating their training. It’s especially impressive given that New Zealand hasn’t had a major oil spill before.”

Gartrell teaches the Avian Medicine paper in Massey’s Master of Veterinary Medicine program. The course aims to develop knowledge of the medicine and surgery of birds, both wild and captive.

Massey’s Master of Veterinary Medicine is open to veterinarians worldwide. The modular distance program lets veterinarians choose single units of study in a topic of interest, or an entire master’s program. Each course covers a particular aspect of veterinary medicine in detail, such as canine and feline oncology, and is taught by an internationally-renowned lecturer.

Caption: Janelle Ward and Brett Gartrell release little blue penguins into a purpose-built enclosure at the Oiled Wildlife Facility.