5.2 Help for the Wildlife

 The methods of cleaning the oiled seabirds were and are controversial. The RSPCA (Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) was responsible for co-ordinating and keeping a continual record of this work. They finally set up an emergency area in Steynton with a washing facility and full treatment equipment, where about 3,155 birds were taken in. They were collected from the beaches and transported to this centre or to RSPCA "hospitals" in Somerset, Cheshire and Norfolk. There they were washed and let free again after being ringed so that they could be recognised again later on.31

This sounds very efficient, but in an interview with Terry Leadbender (cf. tape) of the Welsh Marine Life Rescue, I got quite a different impression of the work of the RSPCA. Terry Leadbender is a volunteer in a team that devotes its time and energy to the rescue of stranded marine life and I was really very impressed to hear about the work he was doing. It was obvious that he was very angry with the RSPCA and dissatisfied with their work. He said that they were "riding on the backs" of many other similar charities and that there was such a lot of money in the society that had not been put to use, or not properly used. He accused them of having even tried to profit from the whole disaster (as many other big charities, such as the Earth Kind, have as well) by using this situation for fund-raising, but not really caring about the welfare of the affected wildlife. He said the RSPCA had put up caravans on the main beaches, where people could deliver oiled birds. They were then stuffed into boxes and transported to the hospitals on up to 6 hour journeys. He thought it was really disgusting. People even came to him with birds they had stolen out of the vans, as they were so upset about the way these birds were treated.

Mr Leadbender felt that the RSPCA did not care at all. With their attitude, he could have no confidence in them. He also accused them of not having sufficient rescue equipment and of giving the birds no proper treatment. After the long and torturous journey in the vans, they just gave the oiled birds to any inexperienced volunteer to be washed. These inexperienced helpers were only briefly shown how to carry out the procedure and it took them about two hours for each bird. Terry Leadbender expressed how horrified he was by the way the birds were being treated and told me about the Wildlife Rehabilitation Document of June 1994. This document says that the washing of oiled birds by anyone who has not had the proper training could cause unnecessary suffering or even death, as it is a skilled task. What makes him especially furious is the fact that the RSPCA prohibited the use of bird-washing machines for a long time, although these facilities had been highly praised for their effectiveness, wherever they had been used. A bird-washing machine was flown over from France to Elf Oil’s Milford Haven refinery.

Specialists claimed that this method was much more efficient and would reduce the stress caused to the birds, as the washing process takes a lot less time with these machines. Another advantage is that a lot more birds can be cleaned in the same space of time. Although this method was proved on over 2,000 birds, the RSPCA refused to use it for a long time, as they thought they would be breaking the animal experimentation laws. They said it had not yet been tested by their own technical experts.32

Terry Leadbender also said that the RSPCA’s managing and co-ordination of the rescue operation was catastrophic. They always seemed to be exactly where the press was at any particular moment, making sure they appeared in front of the cameras, but they neglected areas that did not get the attention of the media. No-one in the organisation knew who was working when at which beach and so there was no efficient co-ordination possible.

I could fully understand Terry Leadbender’s anger over this issue and noticed how concerned he really was about the rescue of the wildlife. He and other volunteers had been working on their own, as the RSPCA had not been co-operating with them, but they always informed the RSPCA about what areas they were working in. They did all this without being paid, driving back and fore between the beaches and the hospitals. I think all these volunteers did a great deal for the suffering sea birds (and also the seals) and we should all be very grateful for their work.

31 cf. SEEEC Report, p. 11 (3.4.8)
32 cf. Harris, R., Bird washing machine sits idle, in: The Mercury, 01-03-1996, p. 6

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Last Updated: 29-01-10