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The Price of All This Cleaning Up Oiled Wildlife?

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Wildlife rescuers in the gulf are getting so few oiled animals they’re starting to worry that the cost per animal seem ridiculous. After Exxon we had reports of “$80,000 otters.” If you hear anything about a $300,000 sea gull, be skeptical.

Mike Ziccardi, a veterinarian who runs Oiled Wildlife Care Network, has been offering the most candid and complete news on the wildlife situation on their blog. He’s been bracing for both an onslaught of injured animals and a backlash against the cost of saving them. “This response is likely to be very costly when it is all said and done – especially if compared on a “per-bird” or “per-turtle/mammal” basis (or at least I hope it is, as that will imply low animal numbers),” he writes today.

In Valdez less than 5% of costs went to wildlife care, Ziccardi says. Caring for oiled wildlife is always done on the cheap, staffed by volunteers, who often sleep in their cars. And lord knows you’ve already heard about Dawn donating its useful soap.

In 1992 James Estes first criticized oiled wildlife rehabilitation efforts as showy and ineffective, pricing the surviving otters at $80,000 each from a total $18 million otter effort. (I’d say that you have to count the dead ones, too–even though that only brings it down to $14,500.) Later he asked “why rehabilitate oiled wildlife“? So you don’t hate him, know that Estes, an adjunct professor at UC-Santa Cruz, isn’t saying screw you, sea otters. He’s saying the money could be better spent trying to prevent spills and shore up vulnerable populations.

In 1999 Dr. David Jessup and Dr. Jonna Mazet argued at the International Oil Spill Conference that the $80,000 figure was wildly inflated and took into account building several extremely remote care facilities from scratch. “The actual cost of collecting and caring for oiled sea otters is about $4,000 to $5,000 and marine birds about $600 to $750 [bargain!]–about one-twentieth the cost often cited from the Exxon Valdez experience,” they write.

Replacement cost is another way to value animals (and other kinds of intangible losses). Luckily, the gulf doesn’t have those expensive sea otters. But it does have some endangered sea turtles that should be nesting soon and manatees. People would pay a pretty penny for any of those.

But why bother saving them? Because it’s the right thing to do. The question itself seems based in the reactionary view that only ecosystems and the environment matter and that it is somehow childish to value the life of an individual animal. Too many people are so afraid of being called anthropomorphic that they rush to something I would call tree-pomorphic, the assumption that other animals have no value beyond their physical properties and contribution to the environment.

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