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Cheep Trick


If you see a penny on the ground, pick it up. Last year, Dr. Erica Miller removed pennies, nickels, fish hooks, fishing line, discarded lures, metal washers, screws, lead pellets from spent shot, shreds of plastic bags, and even an entire chicken wing from the throats of hundreds of birds fortunate enough to be spotted by humans and taken to the Tri-State Bird and Research Center in Newark, Del.

“It’s hard to think about the ones that need help, but aren’t where people can find them,” Miller says.

In 2007 some 2,560 birds in varying stages of distress were found by human beings and brought to the 17-acre, 19th-century, National Historic Register farmstead on Possum Hollow Road. That figure is down somewhat from a record high of 2,972 birds in 1999.

Sometimes, it’s a mixture of manmade and natural acts causing the distress, as in the case of a male bald eagle. Found on residential property last year in Newcastle County, it had burns from flying into power lines, and injuries sustained in a fight with another bird. Its body was riddled with fly eggs and maggots.

After 13 days of medical treatments that included a cleansing bird bath, feeding (donated by pet suppliers), medication (donated by Astra Zeneca), and rest and recuperation in a cage wide enough for him to move around and flap his wings, the eagle was banded, released, and never seen again.


This happens with about two out of every three wild birds that Tri-State treats. Tri-State is not the only place to bring injured wild birds in the region, but it is the best known. It is not licensed to treat pets.

“We try to save every one, but we can only do so much,” says Miller. “It can be terrible when you lose one, because there’s a great deal of emotional investment that goes into helping any living thing.”

And then, there’s the nightmare called an oil spill. You’ve probably seen the pictures of helpless birds struggling to move in one.

The birds discover they can’t fly; can’t move when the oil mixes with sand and so thoroughly weighs them down that they don’t have the strength to stand up; can’t eat when the oil gets into their mouths; can’t breathe.

Oil spills happen in far away locations, but they also happen right here, and not just in coastal waters near the refineries along the Delaware Bay.

One can be caused by an automobile accident. One can happen behind a gas station, restaurant, or factory. One can happen when some idiot finds a quiet place off a roadway, hidden in the trees, and dumps waste oil illegally, thinking that no one will ever know.

Tri-State is one of the two top non-profit wildlife rescue organizations; the second, International Bird Rescue, is in California. They save birds, reptiles, dogs, cats, and other land-going mammals.

As head of Tri-State’s Oil Response Team, Dr. Heidi Stout keeps a bag packed at all times. When her phone rings, every second counts. She contacts up to 30 volunteers on pagers. Tri-State owns two rescue trucks for local spills. She has procedures for getting emergency air transportation for spills farther away.

A veterinarian who started with Tri-State as a volunteer, she has been involved in countless minor oil spills, and at least 50 major ones in the last 20 years, throughout the U.S., Newfoundland, Britain, the Caribbean, the Middle East, and even South Africa.
She didn’t participate in the most infamous oil spill of all time, the March 1989 Exxon Valdez disaster off Prince William Sound in Alaska, which affected some 3,500 birds—International Bird Rescue in California got that one.

But she’s helped save tens of thousands of birds and other animals in others, such as the June 2000 sinking of an ore carrier off South Africa. That spill alone injured 20,000 birds.

Stout and her volunteers followed the same procedures there as on a minor spill—which begins with trying to catch an “oiled” bird. This, as you might expect, is not easy, given that wild birds don’t like to be caught, no matter how much they’re suffering.

Then she tries to stabilize the bird’s condition—in short, prevent it from hurting itself or suffering any further. Each bird is given a thorough examination and first aid. Birds that have become dehydrated due to the effects of consuming oil, can be fed pure bottled water, or, in severe cases, given an intravenous drip.

When you’re dealing with hundreds or thousands of birds in an oil spill, they all can’t be washed immediately. And so, the most emotionally wrenching part of the job is caring for the birds, in ways big and small, while they’re waiting. The birds are washed in a series of tubs filled with a 102° to 104° F solution of water and Dawn Blue dishwashing detergent.

“You’d think shampoo would be great, but it isn’t,” Stout says. “We’ve looked at everything we could get our hands on that would take the oil off safely and efficiently, and Dawn Blue was the best.”

Proctor & Gamble, maker of the dish liquid, makes huge, industrial size containers of it available to Tri-State, either at cost or as an outright donation. With very small spills, Stout will send a volunteer to buy the detergent in a supermarket.

It can take anywhere from five to 40 minutes to rid an animal of oil. The birds are partially immersed in the detergent baths of varying strengths, then rinsed. Their heads are not immersed but cleaned by hand, with a different, non-detergent-based solution used as an eye wash. The birds are dried either with a heat lamp or a pet drier.
Then they are caged and observed for other ailments.

“We can release the bird anywhere from seven to 10 days after that,” says Stout. “If there are complications, we might hold them for as much as two weeks.”
Most of the birds Tri-State treats survive. Federal and international law provides procedures by which Tri-State’s rescue costs are compensated, usually out of fines levied against responsible parties. But those fees do not come close to covering the cost of keeping the facility alive. Some of its major corporate donors are oil companies and refineries, including the Sun Oil Company of Philadelphia, and Exxon Mobil of Irving, Tex.

Tri-State is not paid for treatment of wildlife injured in small spills, when responsible parties can’t be identified.

Dr. Stout says she tries not to think about them. “When we’re called on a spill, we have so much to do, so fast, there’s no time to dwell on that. We’re responsible for the wildlife whether we’re paid or not.”

On December 26, 1976, a Liberian oil tanker called The Olympic Games ran aground in the Delaware River. Dave Mooberry, then a Dupont executive living in Kennett Square, was listening to the radio when he heard a plea for volunteers to help with the cleanup.

“My daughter was home from college. She said, ‘Let’s help the birds.” So we went down Route 13 into Wilmington, to where a Coast Guard boat had anchored some yards off shore,” he says. “Between the beach and the boat were probably a couple hundred geese and ducks covered with oil, and in the middle of that was Lynne Frink.”

A few years previously while living in Texas, Frink had organized a protest that stopped the poisoning of coyotes on federal lands. She brought her sense of environmental awareness with her when her husband John came east to work for Dupont.

“Lynne got a bunch of veterinarians and chemists from Dupont and had them study precisely what to do for wildlife during an oil spill,” Mooberry says. “She decided that we needed a base of operations, so she found an old three-room schoolhouse on Duncan Road in Wilmington, and that became the home of the Delaware Audubon Society. She named the rescue team Tri-State, because the Olympic Games spill affected wildlife in Delaware, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey.”

It wasn’t long before Henry Brynzda, a Dupont scientist, discovered that Dawn Blue was the best cleaning agent. Today, Brynzda, Moobery, and John Frink are members of Tri-State’s advisory board.

“At that point we were just an oil spill response team, but people started showing up at our doorstep with injured and abandoned birds, and Lynne decided we should treat these birds, too,” says Mooberry. “Lynne was significant in making wildlife rehabilitation a profession. She went to New Castle County, which was the owner of our schoolhouse on Duncan Road, and they told her about this old homestead in a wilderness park the county was developing. Lynne told us that with $10,000 we could convert it into a wildlife center. About a million dollars later, we did it.”

One thing Tri-State is not: a tourist attraction. The facility is open to the general public for tours only one day a year, in April. On all other days, it remains a rehabilitation clinic, research laboratory, and staging area to help wildlife in oil spills throughout the world.

Lynne Frink died of cancer in 1998, at 52. Governor Minner spoke at her funeral. The Coast Guard named one of their response vessels after her.

“The thing about Lynne was, that she was a believer,” says Mooberry. “She was a driving force. She could stand up and tell people they had to be better. She had infinite patience with wildlife, not so much patience with human beings. She figured we were smart enough to know what we should be doing. She was right.”

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