Refugee Penguins Recovering

— Scrubbed shining clean, 60

penguins basked under infrared lights drying out their soaked

feathers.

Despite having been coated with oil, dragged from their burrows, shoved in boxes and transported to a rehabilitation center for cleaning, the birds were given a clean bill of health by veterinarians Wednesday.

Birds with Endurance “This is one tough animal,” said Martin Lavoie, a Canadian veterinarian overseeing 20 volunteers washing birds in a giant warehouse in the Cape Town suburb of Salt River. “So far we have had no mortalities from washing.”

The cleaned birds are just a fraction of those hit by an oil leak from a tanker that sank near the coast of Cape Town on June 23, causing one of South Africa’s worst environmental disasters.

The International Fund for Animal Welfare says 44 percent of the world’s population of African penguins — estimated at between 150,000 and 180,000 — has been placed at risk by the spill.

The penguin population will take at least five years to recover, said Tony Williams of the Western Cape Nature Conservation.

About 20,000 oily penguins have been captured so far and sent to treatment centers for cleaning and care. Each bird takes up to an hour to clean.

“Washing is murderous,” said volunteer John Forsyth, as he took a breather Wednesday. “A penguin is quite a difficult thing to work with.”

Atypical Bath The birds are washed in warm water with low-concentrate detergent. One volunteer holds the bird down while another scrubs its body with gloved hands and uses a toothbrush to clean its head.

The birds are then rinsed twice, toweled off, fed an electrolyte solution, given a vitamin injection and placed under infrared lamps to dry. The birds are vulnerable to hypothermia because their plumage loses its waterproofing when it comes into contact with the oil.

Many of the birds are weak and their strength has to be built up, often over weeks, before they can withstand being washed. Once cleaned, it takes the birds up to three weeks before their plumage is waterproof again and they can be released.

Heidi Stout, who is heading a team of veterinarians brought by the International Fund for Animal Welfare to help cope with the disaster, said almost all treated birds were expected to survive.

But no one knows how many birds have died at sea.

More than 10,000 clean birds were evacuated from Dassen Island, 40 miles northwest of Cape Town, and released up the coast. But they appear to be heading back, and officials are hoping that bad weather predicted over the weekend will be enough to break up the oil spill before the penguins return home.

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