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FORT JACKSON, La.
In a plain metal building at this historic site, workers are busy cleaning oil-coated birds, banding them and releasing them into the wild.
After getting only 192 brown pelicans in the last six weeks, 86 were delivered on Sunday, the biggest rescue since the BP PLC-operated rig exploded, spewing heavy oil into the Gulf of Mexico. About 20 orphaned young pelicans also were being raised at the center.
"Cleaning them is really time consuming," Jay Holcomb, executive director of the International Bird Rescue Research Center said on Monday. "They are coated in a really heavy, thick sludge of oil."
The building is sweltering, with only a few giant fans working to stir the muggy air. The 30 workers, encased in biohazard suits, which are sealed with duct tape at the ankles and wrists, and wearing yellow boots, thick rubber gloves and goggles, work methodically despite the heat.
"The suits are very, very hot," said Heather Nevill, the veterinarian overseeing the process. "Sometimes, if our backs are not going to be turned to the birds, we cut holes in the back of them to make them cooler."
A table is lined with tubs, bottles and even a microwave. In the tub an enormous pelican, turned almost black by the oil, sits stoically as workers pour a light vegetable oil over it. A process they humorously refer to as marinating, which has to be done before the birds can be washed.
"It blends with the crude oil and lightens it so we can separate the feathers," Nevill said.
The birds to be cleaned huddle in large plywood pens, covered with net. They are separated mainly by the stage of cleaning they are in, she said.
A stench from the pens floats on the heavy, wet air, but workers seem not to notice.
"We did have someone faint today because of the heat," Holcomb said. "But usually they come in about six or seven in the morning and stay until about six or seven at night."
Other than the oil, the pelicans have been healthy, Nevill said. When they arrive at the cleaning center they are fed and given liquids to reduce their stress before the cleaning begins.
Once they are cleaned, the birds, again brown with white heads, are moved to an outdoor pen with a small pool of water. They cluster together, standing on wide, webbed feet, preening their feathers again.
After the cleaning process, a white band with a number on it is placed around their legs.
"It doesn't allow us to monitor them," Holcomb said. "But we can identify them if they are found again, or if they are found dead."
The birds will eventually be released in Florida, but there is no guarantee they won't return to their oiled islands.
Pelicans have a strong instinct to return to the place they hatched, Holcomb said.
Brown pelicans have a life span of 15 to 20 years or more and were removed from the endangered species list last fall.
"They respond really well to the cleaning," Nevill said. "If we get them in time."