AZA News Releases

Gulf Oil Spill: One Year Later

Silver Spring, MD—One year later, America’s leading zoos and aquariums are continuing rehabilitation and research efforts to help wildlife impacted by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. 

“Many zoos and aquariums have animal rescue and rehabilitation programs in place, and their trained personnel and existing infrastructure have been essential for the continuing oil spill response,” said Dr. Paul Boyle, Senior Vice President of Conservation and Education at the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA). “Accredited zoos and aquariums have unique expertise with animals and they continue to support the care and welfare of wildlife in danger from impacts like the oil spill.”

Following the oil spill, AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums around the country offered assistance, by pledging the services of 200 animal care professionals, donating supplies, vehicles or other resources to assist in the wildlife rescue efforts. For a list of institutions, please visit .

Many zoos and aquariums support wildlife rehabilitation through their ongoing animal rescue and rehabilitation programs. In addition, AZA-accredited organizations focus on scientific field research to help animals and the habitats they need to survive in the wild.

“For all the scientists who study the Gulf, the spill and its effects will remain a key scientific focus for years to come,” said Dr. Kumar Mahadevan, Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium’s President and CEO. “This disaster really helped illustrate the need for more coordinated research efforts Gulf-wide.”

With or without an oil spill, many AZA-accredited institutions are directly involved in the rescue, rehabilitation and release of marine animals. These institutions collectively have dedicated more than 200 years of time caring for stranded dolphins, whales, sea lions, seals, sea otters, sea turtles, and manatees.   Each year, on average, more than 350 marine animals are rescued and over 125,000 hours by more than 100 staff members are spent caring for them. In the last 20 years, AZA-accredited institutions have rescued and rehabilitated more than 1,800 marine animals. More than 1,750 (97%) of these animals have been successfully released back into their natural habitat.

“Their immediate, intensive, and long-term response to the Gulf oil spill demonstrates the vital role of zoos and aquariums in protecting animals and their ecosystems for future generations,” added Boyle.

Marine Animal Rescue and Rehabilitation

Coordinated by the Audubon Nature Institute, the Louisiana Marine Mammal and Sea Turtle Rescue Program (LMMSTRP) was the primary responder for the state of Louisiana for rescuing, rehabilitating and releasing marine mammals and sea turtles. Audubon began receiving oiled sea turtles in the beginning of May 2010, and in the end, Audubon rescued and de-oiled more than 200 animals, mostly endangered Kemp’s Ridley sea turtles. Many volunteer zoo and aquarium veterinarians and vet technicians from around North America traveled to Louisiana to help with de-oiling turtles, including from San Antonio Zoo, Shedd Aquarium, Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium, Detroit Zoo, Toronto Zoo, NEW Zoo, Toledo Zoo,Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Center, Zoo New England, New England Aquarium and the Smithsonian’s National Zoo. Only three sea turtles died in rehabilitation at Audubon and 156 were released either off the coast of Louisiana or Florida starting in early August through mid-October. Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, SeaWorld Orlando, Florida Aquarium, Disney’s Animal Kingdom andThe Seas at Epcot helped with the release of turtles back into the ocean in Florida.

“Currently, Audubon has 30 sea turtles still in rehabilitation and is looking forward to releasing these animals this spring,” said Michele Kelley, Stranding Coordinator for the LMMSTRP and Senior Marine Mammal Trainer at Audubon Aquarium of the Americas. “The 30 sea turtles left in rehabilitation suffered from other injuries that did not make them good candidates for release last year, however, they have done very well under our care and now all been medically cleared for release.”

The LMMSTRP also rescued three bottlenose dolphins during the oil spill. One died shortly after rescue, but two have since been fully rehabilitated. One male was too young to release back into the wild and was moved to a new home at the Dolphin Research Center in the Florida Keys, and the other dolphin’s readiness for release is still being monitored.

Pelican Rescue and Rehabilitation

Staff from another Gulf Coast institution, Jackson Zoo, volunteered at the oiled avian center in Theodore, Alabama. The Jackson Zoo also became the holding institution for non-releasable pelicans—birds that for health reasons cannot be returned to the wild. Through coordination by staff at Moody Gardens and Fort Wayne Children’s Zoo with Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, the main BP contractor for terrestrial animal rescue and rehabilitation, and the United States Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), AZA-accredited zoos and aquariums offered homes for these non-releasable pelicans.

Thirty-two non-releasable pelicans eventually made permanent homes at seven AZA-accredited zoos: Chicago Zoological Society’s Brookfield Zoo, Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo, Saint Louis Zoo, Phoenix Zoo, Alexandria Zoo, St. Augustine Alligator Farm and Jackson Zoo.

Research and Workshops

Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium’s oil spill response, which started immediately after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion, is an ongoing team effort among a diverse group of scientists who study everything from large animals to the most minute changes in the DNA of organisms.

Mote’s initial efforts in the days and months after the spill included using underwater robots to search for oil and contaminants, adding information about oil impacts to Mote’s Beach Conditions Report™, which covers 33 beaches on Florida’s west coast, and gathering environmental samples to allow for a baseline measurement of oil impacts.

A year after the spill, Mote scientists are conducting ongoing studies of oil and dispersant effects on sharks and large pelagic fish species, sea turtles and corals. Through the leadership of the National Aquarium in Baltimore, Mote and Johns Hopkins University initiated a major study using semi-permeable membrane devices to search for chemical contaminants associated with oil and dispersants in the Gulf of Mexico. The Chicago Zoological Society and Mote are also looking at the oil’s effects of contaminants on dolphins. (For full details of these studies, please go to

Mote’s efforts have gone beyond singular studies on the effects of the spill. By hosting and co-sponsoring workshops related to the Deepwater Horizon disaster and participating in those hosted by others, Mote scientists are also helping to shape the future research agenda for the entire Gulf of Mexico.

In November 2010, Mote and its partners from the National Wildlife Federation and the University of South Florida held a successful national symposium to craft recommendations for long-term responses to the spill. Their major recommendation is for a unified research and monitoring effort that will be able to quickly detect an oil spill’s effects as they arise and give management agencies the information they need to implement changes to deal with effects as soon as they are detected. Another conference (“Beyond the Horizon”) taking place May 11-13, 2011, at Mote’s Sarasota, Fla., campus will highlight the Gulf’s unique habitats and the protections they need. 

About AZA

Founded in 1924, the Association of Zoos and Aquariums is a nonprofit organization dedicated to the advancement of zoos and aquariums in the areas of conservation, education, science, and recreation. Look for the AZA logo whenever you visit a zoo or aquarium as your assurance that you are supporting a facility dedicated to providing excellent care for animals, a great experience for you, and a better future for all living things. The AZA is a leader in global wildlife conservation, and your link to helping animals in their native habitats.

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