The first oiled pelicans I saw that spring didn’t look like the ones they put on TV. They looked almost normal at first, but an odd behavioral tic drew your gaze back to them. Then you saw that their belly feathers hung clumped and matted, looking wet, only this was oil.
Feathers protect birds from a world that is by turns too hot, too cold, too wet, too sunny—but oiled feathers can’t do their job. So the pelicans responded the only way they could. They preened, grabbing feather clumps in enormous bills and tugging over and over again. That was the tic that caught your eye, Brown Pelicans stuck in an endless preening loop, unable to save themselves but unable to stop trying. It looked like a form of insanity—I suppose it was—and I still think about the sight with a strangling sense of horror.
Brown Pelicans are highly social beings, flying together in tight, graceful formations and nesting noisily by the hundreds on sheltered islands on the fringes of coasts, feeding at sea. The edge of our world is the beginning of theirs.
They are gentle toward humans, even under stress, the wildlife rehabilitators would tell me. The muscular, seafaring Northern Gannets left triangular gashes on the forearms of people who offered them help they couldn’t understand, but the pelicans were patient as their eyeballs and palates were swabbed, quiet as their skin and feathers were scrubbed.
I’d seen the Brown Pelicans at peace, just two weeks before the fog of madness began to seep in. It was evening on Louisiana’s California Bay, and the setting sun made the grass look as green as anything in this world. The pelicans packed onto a small island, inches apart, pairs sitting on mound nests on the ground, fearless. They had come off the endangered species list only months ago, the success story of a species rebounding after brutal overhunting and DDT poisoning. The rescue effort had worked. It seemed we had found a way to live together after all.
And then oil began roaring out of a violent bore in the seafloor, as if eager to make up for eons in the underworld. Eleven men died in chaos and terror. Humanity proved powerless against the onslaught. It would take a few more spins of this Earth around its axis, but wind and tides would bring that oil to the heart of the pelicans’ sanctuary.
The oil reached many other birds, too. I’d see adolescent Roseate Spoonbills, their pink feathers brown with oil, drowning Laughing Gulls, and doomed Royal Tern chicks. I would see the human toll: Servers weeping in restaurants. Businesses shuttered, communities scattered, families separated. Seafood industries in turmoil. Jobs gone. A lost summer of tourism. A couple standing together atop a dune as wave after wave of red and orange oil washed up onto the sand. The Gulf was closed for business.
The spill marked one more stanza in the long, uneasy ballad of our relationships with one another and with all life on Earth. Just five years before, Hurricane Katrina killed more than 1,800 people and wreaked more than $160 billion of havoc. The storm was magnified by decades of environmental degradation that had turned vast wetlands into open water, leaving New Orleans exposed. Katrina’s toll was also sharply intensified by human failures and prejudices that left the poor, the elderly, the disabled, and the city’s Black and brown residents most defenseless in the face of horrendous crisis. When we fail to consider the fullness of one another’s humanity in our environmental policies, we deepen cycles of injustice and harm.
We haven’t yet learned how to live alongside pelicans, and we haven’t learned how to live alongside one another, either. As I write, news is breaking of 1 billion animals dead from Australia’s wildfires, on top of immense human cost. Ice is melting, seas are rising, coral reefs are bleaching, extinctions are accelerating, peoples are being displaced, and droughts are deepening. In 2010 we saw people, birds, dolphins, and turtles suffer and die amid Deepwater Horizon’s flames and oil. Today the scale of suffering and death unfolding as our climate warms boggles the mind, activating all our individual and collective defense mechanisms. Block. Stop. Deny. Distract. Exploit.
In the Gulf, the best-funded environmental restoration initiative in world history is underway, cause for great hope. At the same time, our government is slashing environmental safeguards with abandon, even the venerable Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which defended all those birds in the Gulf and held BP financially accountable for its harm.
By now we know very well that human economic and social well-being depend on a clean and healthy environment. In such challenging times, we must boldly reimagine how we will relate to that environment and to one another.
I imagine that as a society, we could build a set of environmental policies and practices that lift up every person, not just the most able, fortunate, or powerful, and certainly not just those of one favored race or class. I imagine we could be brave enough to treat every other human being as fully equal to ourselves.
I imagine too that we could build into those environmental policies and practices a commitment to the innate worth and independence of all species with whom we share this planet, from Brown Pelicans to bald cypresses. I imagine that we could value their lives beyond the utility they lend our own.
These are not primarily scientific challenges. They are choices of morality, of politics, of faith, of will, of accountability. What do you choose, and what are you going to do about it?
Author’s note, April 13, 2020:
Since my essay about the 10-year anniversary of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill went to print in Audubon’s Spring 2020 issue, the Gulf Coast has closed for business once again—this time with the rest of America. The COVID-19 pandemic tearing through our communities has created a dire catastrophe across our nation and across the world. So many aspects of this crisis are unprecedented, yet so many are familiar, too. Years of warnings by scientific and medical experts were minimized or ignored. Some government responses have been shaped by ego and greed, instead of evidence and humanity. Marginalized people are dying at higher rates in a toll that already exceeds eleven times that of Hurricane Katrina and seven times that of 9/11. Under cover of chaos, polluters are making new gains in their quest to smash safeguards that protect us all. And yet, courageous people in communities, businesses, nonprofits, governments—and most especially in healthcare—are making a difference every day. So as this crisis deepens, as the BP oil spill anniversary passes quietly, and as we note the 50th Earth Day remembrance on April 22, I ask again: In what kind of world do you want to live, and what are you going to do about it?
While working in the Gulf for Audubon, David J. Ringer was deeply involved in the emergency spill response in 2010. He’s now Audubon’s Chief Network Officer.