Our dependence on oil for fuel, energy and various products has more than one downside. With the movement of oil, release of that oil into the environment is a risk. And while California has instituted regulations that have greatly reduced the risk, oil spills unfortunately do occur, often with devastating environmental impacts and with the involvement of animals in that oil spill. Large oil spills bring reminders through constant news images of oiled birds and beaches that make people want to do something, anything to help. There are ways you can help during an oil spill without becoming a hindrance to professionals working to clean the beaches and birds. 

Although your instincts may be to jump in and help as much as possible, some actions can cause more harm than good. There are things you can do to help beaches and wildlife in an oil spill, although unless you are trained in oil spill response, a hands off approach is how you can best help.  

What Not to Do

Do not just show up at the oil spill location and expect to be put to work. Cleanioil spill effectsng oil off beaches and off birds takes specialized training and knowledge. Showing up at a spill site and harassing those oil spill professions into letting you help only creates more stress and problems for the spill crews, impeding their work.

Do not try to clean or remove oil from the beach yourself. Oil is a carcinogen – it causes cancer, touching oil puts you at risk. Also, removing the oil and improperly disposing of it only creates environmental problems in other locations. Leave the oil spill containment and clean up to the trained professionals and volunteers.

Do not try to capture oiled birds or other animals affected by oil spills yourself. See the oil is a carcinogen note above for one reason. Also, improper handling or attempted captures of the birds or other wildlife can cause them to head to the water, where they will likely die, or cause additional stress that will worsen their condition.

What to Do

Do report cited oiled birds and other wildlife to the professionals. In California the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) and International Bird Rescue, along with several other wildlife rehabilitation facilities are responsible for the care of oiled birds. Contact these organizations for instructions about found oiled wildlife, then follow those instructions.

Go to the OWCN or IBR’s oil spill volunteer trainings. During active large spills, hundreds of volunteers are needed to care for the animals in an oil spill. With large spills, there are usually emergency volunteer trainings that you can attend and then almost immediately get put to work.

Get trained in advance and volunteer your time to gain experience before a spill. The more training and experience you have caring for wildlife, the more helpful you can be during an actual oil spill. Both the OWCN and IBR have regular volunteer trainings that anyone can sign up for and attend in locations throughout California. The training and experience gained while there is not an active spill will be much more thorough and not as overwhelming. You will feel better prepared to work during a spill with training you received during non-spill work. 

Expectations of Working an Oil Spill

Do not expect helping during an oil spill to be easy or glorified. Volunteers spend hours, nonstop, scrubbing cages, cleaning pools and creating fish diets, often in heated humid rooms  (for the bird’s well-being) while wearing uncomfortable, hot hazmat suits. If you have done a good job, at the end of a shift you will be hot, sweaty, tired, drained and smell of a memorable combination of fish, bird poop and oil.

Do expect to feel a great sense of fulfillment from caring for animals in an oil spill. Seeing the surviving birds get released makes all the hard work more than worthwhile. Saying you will feel fulfilled and good about yourself does not begin to describe the feeling of seeing a once oil soaked bird get released and fly away out to sea.


Don't have the time to volunteer? Then make a donation to a wildlife oil spill response organizations instead.