A veterinarian's role in the 2010 gulf oil spill (Proceedings)


A mid-morning e-mail query from Dr. Craig Harms alerted me to the possibility of impending deployment to the Gulf of Mexico area for oiled sea turtle triage, treatment, and rehabilitation. Apparently the veterinary support for the Audubon Nature Institute's effort was about to head home and a relief team was needed pronto to provide clinical continuity.

A mid-morning e-mail query from Dr. Craig Harms alerted me to the possibility of impending deployment to the Gulf of Mexico area for oiled sea turtle triage, treatment, and rehabilitation. Apparently the veterinary support for the Audubon Nature Institute's effort was about to head home and a relief team was needed pronto to provide clinical continuity. The direct request to Dr. Harms was from Sara McNulty of NOAA's National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) Office of Protected Resources.

About 9:00 AM I contacted Shane Christian, North Carolina State University College of Veterinary Medicine (NCSU-CVM) Aquatic Animal Health Technician, via cell phone and put him on alert. We checked schedules, covered our Raleigh bases, packed, headed to the NCSU-CVM, and awaited further word. Nearly 3 hours of cell phone silence followed.

Walking into the CVM's Veterinary Teaching Hospital (VTH) I was stopped by Greta Johansen, the NCSU-CVM Chief Financial Officer, who was chatting with Shane in the hallway. Greta was better informed than I and had been diligently working on a service contract with British Petroleum (BP) that would facilitate our team's involvement in the oil cleanup/wildlife treatment effort. Greta, a devoted supporter of wildlife, conservation, and turtles in general, assured us that travel to New Orleans, even today if necessary, was doable regardless of the BP contract status. Between Craig, Sara, and Greta, the travel green light was flipped on, Shane tracked down flights (with assistance from Sarah Battle), and I worked with Dave Green, Director of the CVM's Public Relations and Outreach Office, who had set up two television interviews with NBC 17 and WRAL. Dave did a great job of last minute scheduling and both interviews were completed in time for me to depart on time for the airport with Shane to catch a 5:55 flight to New Orleans via Charlotte. There was even time for Tracey Peake, the College Director of Media Relations, to deliver a brand new Flip video camera to Janice Cofield at the front desk.

Our Charlotte flight was delayed about 40 minutes due to weather but we still had plenty of time to make our connection there and arrived New Orleans about 10:00 PM local time. I sat beside a nice and friendly gentleman who overheard Shane and me discussing the sea turtles. He had plenty of good and interesting questions for us, and shared photos of his beloved "Goldendoodle" Winston, who loves sitting on the back of an idling motorcycle with his owner. Dean also shared some Hurricane Katrina stories and had the misfortune of moving from Texas to New Orleans 5 days before the storm struck! Everything he owned was subjected to 6 feet of saltwater, but he and his wife survived, persevered, and seem to have a lovely life on Lake Pontchartrain. He lost a year of his life, a year of income, but, was genuinely grateful to have come out of the ordeal in relatively good shape compared to others. He also specifically thanked us for coming to New Orleans and assisting with the oil spill cleanup/mitigation effort.

Our Hertz rental car pick-up was uneventful and we headed for our hotel about 10:30 PM local time. After doing a bit of a New Orleans "drive-about," we found the Clarion Westbank Hotel and settled in for a good night's sleep.

Thursday June 17, 2010

Shane navigated us to Audubon Nature Institute's ACRES facility, where after about a 30-minute wait, Shane figured out that Cara Field was already on site, and could vouch for us with the security guard.

We spent about an hour meeting the dedicated staff and reviewing records and procedures with Cara. Others we met included Marina, a volunteer from NC and University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) graduate, Sarah Gomez, a veterinary technician with Audubon, Michelle (the Audubon stranding coordinator), Greg and Lance (Audubon aquarists), Amanda (media relations for Audubon), Krista (aquarist feeding/cleaning turtles).

We began working on turtles with Cara about 9:30 AM and she introduced us to the basic procedures, progress sheets, triage protocols, etc. I had to leave for Baton Rouge, and my Louisiana State University (LSU) AQUAMED teaching commitment, about 11:30 AM. Before I left a National Geographic (Nat Geo) photographer named Joel Santore, an expert on wildlife and exceedingly accomplished photojournalist, appeared with his son Cole. He was very professional, knowledgeable, and efficient. He was working on an article that appeared in the October issue of Nat Geo.

I drove to Baton Rouge and left Shane to work up turtles with the team, which he did, until about 4:00 PM. I delivered 3 hours of lecture on pet fish medicine, chatted with the AQUAMED students and faculty, and then consulted on LA 108, a Kemp's ridley from ACRES with bilateral femoral fractures. After meeting with Javier Navarez (LSU Exotics clinician) and his team, including a surgeon, and with input from Bob MacLean, the decision was made to return the turtle to New Orleans and stabilize it before making a final decision on surgery to stabilize the worst of the two fractures. The turtle and I drove the 80 or so miles back to Gretna (where our hotel is) that evening.

Friday June 18, 2010

Shane, #108, and I drove to the ACRES facility and met Cara Field and the team about 8:00 AM. Along the way Shane spotted, and saved, a small mud turtle that was waddling quickly down the center of the road about 5 miles from our destination. One turtle saved and we weren't even "working" yet! After getting organized with the medical records, and discussing the day with Cara, we started on a long list of turtle evaluations, treatments, etc. A CNN team arrived about 10 AM and were very polite, professional, and courteous. Michele (Audubon's stranding coordinator) hosted the team, answered questions, handled turtles, and eventually appeared as the "star" on the roughly two and a half minute piece that aired. It was very well done and concisely relayed the effort here, and the plight of the turtles, to the public.

Bob MacLean appeared about lunchtime and assisted for a while before having to leave for a CBS Evening news interview/press conference. Cara needed to fly to Long Island for AQUAVET® and left around noon. Shane, Sarah Gomez (AI veterinary technician), and I broke for a delicious Cajun lunch at Salvo's Seafood before returning to finish working on the turtles in the afternoon. Our day ended about 6:30 PM, having processed 55 turtles, in what turned out to be a very productive and rewarding day.

Saturday June 19, 2010

Three AQUAMED students (Melissa Fleishman from NCSU and Jonas Vaitkus and Cody Yager from VA Tech) met us at the Clarion about 8:00 AM. We drove in Shane's rental to the ACRES facility where Bob met us about 8:40. The students proved to be invaluable! About 9:30 AM we learned that a live Tursiops (bottlenose dolphin) was stranded about 3 hours drive west of us (it turned out to be more like 4.5 hours). Bob and Michele quickly mobilized a large pick-up truck, two technicians, the i-STAT unit, Doppler®, and various supplies, leaving for the dolphin rescue about 10:00 AM, and leaving us a little short-handed but still in decent shape with the AQUAMED students.

We spent the rest of the morning and afternoon doing treatments with another Salvo Seafood lunch break about 1:00 PM. Prior to heading off for lunch we knew that a single oiled turtle was coming in, and of course, it arrived early while we were at lunch. We hustled back and worked up the turtle, which had already been cleaned, and I was actually able to get a heart rate with a stethoscope (the Doppler® and i-STAT were with the dolphin team). It was good to be able to take our time for my first oiled turtle triage and workup, that consisted of a physical examination, fluoroscein corneal staining looking for ulcers, blood collection for health assessment and hydrocarbon analysis, cleaning of the eyes, buccal cavity, and pharynx with mayonnaise, and finally treatment with 2% bodyweight subcutaneous fluids (for dehydration), vitamin B-Complex (as an appetite stimulant and general health boost), iron dextran (for possible anemia), ceftazidime (an antibiotic to protect against bacterial infection), and finally a 5.0mL/kg oral gavage (tube-feeding) of a 2:1 mayonnaise/cod liver oil slurry to assist with crude oil/toxin movement through the gastrointestinal tract. We also learned two more important things in the afternoon. There would be six new oiled turtles arriving about 7:00 PM and the dolphin team was bringing back the bottlenose dolphin and it was still alive! This really surprised me, and the aquarists as well; in short order Greg and Christa, two extremely dedicated and hard working people, were supervising the nearly 2 hour endeavor of moving 91 live 1-3 kg pompano, literally one and two fish at a time, to another large tank about 30 meters away from the "marine mammal pool." The AQUAMED students in a water-splashed relay race with bouncing fish in large rubberized nets gamely assisted them. I even joined the fish shuttle that was completed in time to work up the new turtles.

About an hour before our new six-pack of oiled chelonians arrived, reinforcements began appearing in the form of Audubon curators, aquarists, volunteers, and an LSU exotic animal resident named Huguen Beaufret (Hug, pronounced "Ug"). Hug was French, had attended the Lyon veterinary school, and was a seasoned "turtle triager"; his input and guidance really helped move things along once the turtles arrived.

The AQUAMED students, along with Shane and other technicians, were of great assistance, and we finished with the turtles in time to catch our breath before the dolphin arrived about 9:30 PM. Bob MacLean, Michele Kelley, and the rest of their team did an excellent job of retrieving (9 hours of driving) and transporting the animal back to New Orleans. The students couldn't believe their good fortune in seeing so much that day and a long night of dolphin wrangling and treatment was clearly something they were excited about and looking forward to!

About a dozen people were in house and available to handle the dolphin, which weighed 105 kg (approximately 230 pounds), and deposit it in the 10-meter circular tank with its 25,000-plus liters of water. Initially the dolphin was restrained in and supported by a cetacean stretcher with about six people supporting the animal. When it became clear the dolphin was reasonably strong, it was carefully released, and immediately began to slowly, then gradually more steadily, swim about the tank. While it listed slightly to the right, it was at least swimming, and if it retained this ability, life would be much easier for those volunteers picking 4-hour time slots for a 24/7dolphin watch. When we left last Aquatic Center about 11:30 PM the dolphin was swimming freely and our heads hit pillows knowing we'd lost no patients that day. Not even the two live rat snakes we captured, examined, and released that had been cruising through the turtle clinic!

The three A AQUAMED students were such a big help, that we requested they remain for Sunday, which they agreed to with glee (spending the night with one of Cody's local family members). Knowing we would have twice as many veterinary students the next day was comforting and encouraging!

Sunday, June 20, 2010

Shane and I met for breakfast in the Clarion dining area, caught up a bit, and then awaited the arrival of our six AQUAMED students. Our new students were Chelsea from Oregon State University, Heather from St. Georges (awaiting transfer to either UGA or LSU), and Jillian Schwartz from LSU and the efficient and reliable organizer of the group. They arrived in separate cars, we divided up, and one vehicle followed Shane and me to the ACRES facility. Upon arrival we made the appropriate introductions and began working on the dolphin. Not only was the animal still alive, but it appeared stronger, and in short order it was captured, restrained, and treated. The students really enjoyed this and I saw something I'd never seen before; pieces of nasty brown blowhole goo that spouted onto Jillian's cheeks and forehead, were carefully retrieved on glass slides by Shane and analyzed in the laboratory. The samples proved quite valuable and helped us diagnose at least two parasitic problems of the animal's respiratory tract.

After the dolphin treatments were completed, and Bob consulted with Craig Harms via cell phone, our student-heavy veterinary team began working on the 80-plus sea turtle patients. It was another productive and rewarding day with a tasty lunch at a Belle Chasse restaurant called Zydeco's. There were no new turtles arriving this evening, or dolphins, and everyone in our group was on their way home or to the hotel by about 7:30 PM.

Monday, June 21, 2010

Shane and I met for breakfast at the hotel about 7: 15 AM and departed in time to be at the ACRES facility by 8:00. Shane had to switch rooms overnight due to an AC malfunction. Bob MacLean and many of his team were already here, with a plan to tube the dolphin about 8:30. The dolphin was captured, and while working on it, Javier Navarez (LSU Exotics faculty member) and Tiffany Wolf (Minnesota Zoo Staff Veterinarian) appeared and helped out. The dolphin was removed from the tank and radiographed with a portable unit. Javier shot the films using a technique established by Bob. Once the four plates were exposed, Amanda (ACRES veterinary technician) and I drove the 5 minutes to the hospital here (very fancy and well equipped clinic—on the order of a veterinary referral hospital). Once Amanda processed the films, my job was to evaluate the technique, which I did, with the help of the Marine Mammal CRC Handbook. The films looked fine to me (except for some clearly evident lung pathology) considering the nature of the radiography process ("guestimated" exposure strength/time, hand held unit, etc.). When we returned to the ACRES Aquatics facility, the dolphin team was pressure-pumping both IV and SC fluids into the animal. Once this was finished, the dolphin was tube fed its oral medications and a five-mackerel smoothie. We also soon learned that at least 10 new oiled turtles would be brought in later in the day.

With the treatments and assessment of the dolphin completed about 10:30 AM, Tiffany, Javier, Shane, and I began the daily sea turtle rounds and treatments. After a nice break for lunch at the Olive Branch restaurant (awesome spot) we returned to the turtle treatment/triage task and completed the day's work about 4:45 PM.

About 5:00 PM the dolphin was captured and treated with SC fluids and another round of tube feeding. The animal resisted vigorously at times during the procedure and is clearly getting stronger, or, simply fighting the restraint and treatment regimen more effectively.

The 10 new turtles arrived courtesy of the LA Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries about 9:30 PM. Draped in white Tyvek® suites, black rubber boots, latex gloves, and in some cases protective goggles, the turtle cleaning and veterinary teams set to work processing the new arrivals; there were seven juvenile greens and three Kemp's ridleys. The cleaners, consisting of about 10 dedicated and skilled volunteers, de-oiled, restrained, measured, and scrubbed the turtles with Dawn® detergent before bringing them one-by-one to the three assembled veterinary teams. My team consisted of a holder, data recorder, veterinary technician, and "floater" technician, processed three green turtles that weighed between 580 and 980 grams. Shane would have been assisting but he was picking Craig up at the airport. Ninety minutes after the turtles arrived we were removing our protective gear, washing up, and the vets began working on the medical records, one for each animal. Others processed blood samples, worked on chain-of-custody forms, and tied up various loose ends from the long day. Craig arrived about 11:00, missing the new patient accessions/cleaning, but having time for a facility orientation and meet/greet with the various personnel he didn't already know.

After dropping Craig off at his hotel, a Best Western about 3 miles from the Clarion, Shane and I pulled into our destination parking lot a few minutes after midnight. It had been a 16-plus hour day but a good one. The bed was inviting and CNN broadcast a sobering Larry King Live celebrity fundraiser for the people and animals affected by and suffering from the disaster.

Tuesday June 22, 2010

I met Shane for a quick Clarion Inn breakfast and we quickly departed for the ACRES facility, with a McDonald's stop along the way, for some much needed hot coffee. The hotel only had decaf this morning in the complimentary breakfast dining room.

The mood at the Aquatic Center was fairly upbeat when we arrived about 8:00 AM; the dolphin was stable and all of the turtles had survived the night. About 8:30 the "dolphin team" of about eight people mobilized and captured the 200 plus pound animal for its morning hands-on assessment, tube feeding, and medicating. This was Craig's first chance to "get wet" with the animal, and by the end of the blubber and muscle-shaking event, he was soaked. Those joining him in the water were Shane, Greg Anderson, Javier, Marina, and Bob. Assisting from the out-of-tank platform were Claire, Carey, and myself (sometimes it pays to be short). After it's mackerel and meds funneled-in frappe, the dolphin was released, and quickly resumed it's more-or-less normal swimming pattern about the tank.

After my morning Red Bull drink I joined the veterinary team and we organized our day. We worked closely with the aquarists and volunteers to move the turtles along to the various holding stations. Some of the veteran patients, here for over 3 weeks and finished with their antibiotics, were prepped for a "free swimming" turtle day care by marking their shells with grease pencils and hypodermic application of microchips (PIT tags). Some of those, once cleared by the veterinary staff, were moved from the yellow zone to the green zone. Nearly all of the 80-plus turtles consumed their freshly thawed calamari breakfast. Turtle #115, an approximately 4 pound Kemp's ridley, continues to worry the medical and husbandry teams with its poor appetite, marred skin and shell, and generally depressed attitude. With the assistance of some large hemostat forceps, it entered the mid-morning hours with a couple pieces of squid in its belly.

By 12:45 PM we had reached a good stopping point with all but the previous night's accessions being evaluated, fed, and treated. Working in pairs, with Shane running for supplies, performing lab tests, marking records, restraining turtles, and generally "being Shane," Tiffany, Javier, Craig, and I may have set a turtle treatment record.

Since it was my last day, Michele and Kerry presented me with a lovely gift bag, as thanks for my efforts, and after some hugs and handshakes, a group of about eight of us headed for a tasty Olive Branch lunch before Shane drove me to the airport for my scheduled 4:15 flight. A mechanical delay, which resulted in a plane and connection city change, gave me time to make a couple of phone calls and check in with Craig about speaking with a Raleigh news reporter that may make the trip to New Orleans next week. Craig informed me that all of the turtles had been treated by 5:00 and the team was preparing for the second dolphin capture and treatment session. They also learned there would be no new oiled turtles this night; the teams would be eating dinner at a normal time and likely getting a good night's sleep.


A total of 205 sea turtles were treated at the Audubon Nature Institute's ACRES facility as of late November 2010. Nearly all of the turtles treated at the Audubon facility in the spring and summer of 2010 survived and most have been returned to the wild. The first group of Kemp's ridley turtles (23 animals) was released, along with a number of other sea turtles from different facilities, on August 18, 2010 near Cedar Key, FL.

One can learn more of the efforts and events on the following web site: http://www.auduboninstitute.org/about/conservation/lmmstrp

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