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Susan Deily-Swearingen Headshot

Cleaning Up the Mess: Thoughts on the Near Sisyphian Task in the Gulf

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Pictures of the environmental devastation in the Gulf have begun to come in -- first as a trickle and now as a deluge -- showing oil coated birds and turtles trying to surface only to inhale lungs full of VOC's and toxic goop. So far Animal Rescue Groups and Science Organizations such as the Institute of Sea Mammal Studies in Gulfport, Mississippi have cleaned, treated and tested any number of animals. Turtles, birds and dolphins for whom, according to a May 3rd article in the UK's Guardian, this is spawning season in the areas most affected by the spill, are amongst the most vulnerable.

Add to those species, all the others, who live in soon to be affected wetlands or on sea beds, or in tributary bodies of water, and, from this outsider' perspective, the challenges of saving a significant number of lives seem almost insurmountable. Also, until the oil is completely eradicated, isn't there a chance that the rescued animals' instincts and homing senses will lead them back into peril again?

Why then would people do this? Why volunteer for a clean-up job which may amount to rolling a stone uphill only to have it slide back down again restarting the process? Some answers are obvious, because residents and advocates of the area and these animals are not about to surrender these creatures or shores to what amounts to a preventable accident. Many involved in the clean-up are scientists and animal advocates who have worked in this area and with these species for entire careers. Their work is heroic and exhausting to contemplate.

Other reasons to work on cleaning up the Gulf Shores and waters may be less tangible, less obvious. A few months ago, as I was driving my three-year-old daughter to Nursery School, I noticed a rather large seagull playing chicken with oncoming cars in heavy traffic. Eager to be on time I carried on, vowing to come back once I had dropped her off. The preschool director outfitted me with a box and gloves in case the bird was injured and needed to be captured and taken in for care.

Sure enough, when I got back to the spot I had first seen him, the bird was still there. I stopped my car in traffic to try and capture the now obviously injured creature, only to send him flying down a much quieter side street. 'Good' I thought. 'At least he can still fly.'

The gull allowed me to come quite close a few times, and I noticed that it had a fishing hook through one foot and an attached line wrapped around both feet. It could fly, but walking had been transformed into an agonizing looking hop and hobble.

As I fruitlessly tried to entice the bird with bits of bagel procured from a sympathetic local bakery, another car pulled up behind mine and a Mother and her three-year-old daughter got out. "Oh, good" she said. "Someone else is trying to help that poor thing."

We tried everything to capture the bird including trespassing on multiple properties, stalking the bird through back yards and on porches. Many a neighbor came out, at first bemused, then joining the struggle to help this poor animal. At some point we must have all realized it was a futile effort, but none of us wanted to give up. We were a Movement now of people who had seen an animal suffering from a man made condition and we were determined to make it right.

I can't speak for the others, but I kept going in part because I felt responsible for and to this animal. I enjoy eating fish and understand that nets and detritus from the industry are a real, if unwanted, part of some people's effort to bring the sea's bounty to my table. I drive a car, and like most people in this country I enjoy the lower gas prices that come with a plentiful supply. As a result, presently I feel somewhat complicit in the suffering of people and animals affected by this latest disaster.

We never caught the bird. He finally got sick of our paparazzi-like numbers and flew off to a wood where we couldn't reach him. I kicked myself for the nearly 20 times I "almost had him," and despaired about his fate. Still, I took small comfort in the number of people who joined our ridiculous looking effort. That that many people would care about the suffering of a single animal gave me hope for people caring about the fate of animals and environments on a larger scale.

My hope is renewed again by the people I see back home on the Gulf who work tirelessly and seemingly undaunted to save these animals from their horrific, man-made condition of suffering. Every animal saved, no matter how long their relief lasts, is a victory. I hope to journey home soon to volunteer my time and effort in making these victories happen.

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