At a warehouse in southern Louisiana, workers in hazmat suits spend their days scrubbing the feathers of hundreds of birds so saturated in crude oil that they can no longer move, let alone fly.
The cleaning process is arduous, for the birds and for the volunteers. It's carried out in a warehouse where fans reduce the 110 degree heat enough to barely get it into double digits. Encased in hazmat suits, they can only work for 20 minutes at a time, and one worker fainted recently.
The birds, the majority of which are brown pelicans, are so coated in the oil that began spewing into the Gulf and these animals' natural habitat in April that workers have had to add an extra step to the washing routine.
"These oiled birds are about as bad as you get," said Jay Holcomb, the executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center at Fort Jackson in Venice. "They are at the point where they can hardly move because they are so stuck with oil."
So far, 289 birds have been treated at the center, and 86 were brought more were in on Sunday.
The numbers of oiled birds have been growing rapidly each day as animal control workers drop off crates of the nearly unrecognizable fowl that are picked up from the marshlands off the coast. Other birds, many of which are coming from Grand Isle, Louisiana, are helicoptered in.
The workers, dressed head to foot in protective gear to shield their own skin from the toxins in the oil, begin the cleaning process only after the birds go through a thorough intake process. Veterinarians take blood samples, weigh the birds and do a full physical examination of every bird.
The cleaning begins with the massaging of warmed vegetable oil into the birds' feathers to help break up the stubborn oil.
"It's a pretreatment to loosen up the crude oil," said Holcomb. "But it's another step and more stress for the bird."
"These birds are the birds being filmed out in the field, the ones that a really heavily oiled and just coated," said Holcomb, who led the treatment effort during the Exxon Valdez spill in 1989 too. "They look like they were just dipped in it, like fondue, and that's because they plunge into the water to get fish and don't understand what the oil is, and just get covered."
Bird Baths to Remove Lethal Oil
After the birds get the pretreatment, many are put under heat lamps to help them stay warm.
Then they are put into a sink filled with Dawn dishwashing soap, and the workers scrub their feather - gently using a toothbrush around their eyes and head - until the oil is gone and their white heads are visible again. The birds are dried in a "blow drying room" like one at a dog grooming salon.
By the time the one-hour cleaning is finished, the birds look like new and the workers are covered in the oil.
The birds do struggle and shriek as they're cleaned, and workers firmly hold their beaks shut. The birds eventually relax. The struggle is worth it, according to Holcomb, who says that if left untreated, the oil would kill the birds.
"The initial impact on the birds is externally," said Holcomb. "But what happens now is that they have these beautiful down jackets, [but once they're oiled] they are unable to insulate themselves from cold and warm weather."
"And they lose their buoyancy in the water, which is why you see them floundering and struggling to get out so they don't drown or get hypothermic," he said.
The entire rehabilitation process takes between seven and 10 days, or until the caretakers are certain the birds can regulate their own body temperatures and are able to fish.
Behind the warehouse, the pelicans are treated to cages that resemble their natural habitat. Small pools of water are constructed to help the birds get back into their routine.
The before-and-after of the bird baths is remarkable.
"These birds look amazingly better compared to how they looked when they came in," said Heather Nevill, the medical director of the International Bird Rescue Center.
"When they came in they were covered in that thick, chocolate brown oil and since they've been washed their feathers look fantastic. Now we can actually tell which birds have white heads and are adults," she said.
Louisiana Birds Are Cleaned and Released in Florida
When the birds are strong enough, they'll get released into the wild off the coast of Florida in the hope that they will not get stuck in oil again. But Holcomb says that many of the older birds will return to Louisiana anyway, looking for their homes, now covered in oil.
So far, no birds who have been treated in the center have returned for cleaning a second time, but Holcomb is prepared to put any bird that comes to him through the cleaning assembly line again, should they need it.
"We're going to be here for a long, long time," he said. "But we're ready."