Spring 2011


A Summer of Sludge

Student Rehabs Oiled Birds in Wake of BP Disaster

Stephany Helbig Stephany Helbig

WHEN BP’S DEEPWATER HORIZON rig exploded in the Gulf of Mexico last April, it left thousands of oiled sea birds in its wake. Last summer, HSU Wildlife junior Stephany Helbig joined the rescue and rehabilitation efforts.

At 20 years old, Helbig has spent nearly half of her life caring for animals. “I’ve been riding horses since I was 7, and being a veterinarian is something I’ve always wanted to do,” she says.

When Helbig entered high school, she volunteered with the WildCare center in San Rafael, Calif. Although her school only required 20 hours of service, Helbig dedicated herself to the center for seven years as a volunteer, an intern and eventually a paid employee.

A northern gannet is cleaned at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Theodore, Ala. A northern gannet is cleaned at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center in Theodore, Ala. (Photo courtesy of © BP p.l.c.)

“One day, my boss told me I’d been nominated to go to Louisiana,” Helbig says. “She said, ‘You’ll be working 12- to 14-hour days with one day off for three weeks minimum.

Once in Louisiana, Helbig experienced long, eventful days. “I was supervisor of the dry room where the birds come after they’re washed,” she says. There, she would tube feed the birds Emeraid—a specially formulated food for critically ill animals—and check their temperatures. “If I got a bird with a body temperature under 100 degrees, that bird was considered to be in critical condition.”

The center in Louisiana was set up in a large warehouse. “The whole place had this smell of rotten fish, oil, bird droppings and Dawn soap,” Helbig says. “The birds would come from ‘Oiled World’ to ‘Wash World,’ to ‘Dry World,’ to ‘Clean World.’ That’s what we named the different areas in our center.”

For three weeks, Helbig’s world was one of non-stop activity, feeding birds and checking their temperatures every hour. Then there was the paperwork, keeping a chart for every animal she cared for, recording times, temperatures and feedings.

Despite the long days, Helbig enjoyed her work. Birds she cared for included laughing gulls, white and brown pelicans, snowy egrets and roseate spoonbills. “You get to see how beautiful and how powerful they are with your own eyes,” she says.