Heroes in the Gulf: Kayla DiBenedetto, USFWS


Photo courtesy of USFWS

Kayla DiBenedetto is a fisheries biologist in the Baton Rouge Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office in Louisiana.

“The way I figure it, for the last 3 ½ years I have had the best of two worlds: I’m working with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service doing what I love; and my field station is located in my hometown. I was born and raised in Baker, LA, 30 minutes north of Baton Rouge.  So I guess you could say that Louisiana’s coasts and wetlands with their abundant fish and wildlife resources are my “native habitat” and have helped shape who I am today.

When the oil spill hit the Gulf Coast in late April, our three-person office was just completing work on a movement study of the Gulf sturgeon. This large, prehistoric-looking fish is federally protected.  Things were going well.  And then came the spill.

Almost overnight, work on the Gulf sturgeon and our other projects ground to a halt and of necessity, everything became about the oil.  In rapid succession, each one of us in our little office deployed to a spill site.  I suddenly went from using my knowledge and skills to help prevent future disasters to fish and wildlife, to addressing the present disaster that was unfolding right before my eyes.  In my backyard.  At an unimaginable scale.  

I was assigned to a wildlife rescue team at Grand Isle, LA with about 10 other people.  Our job was to find and collect oiled birds and deliver them to a triage center, where their initial, life-saving clean-up could begin.  Along with other teams, we roved the beaches, the Gulf waters, and the island rookeries looking for birds in trouble and responding to calls on reports of oiled birds. While we were out there , we also monitored the status of the booms holding back the oil and reported any locations where boom was missing, had come apart, or was damaged and in need of repair.clean and oiled pelicans

During the first couple of days, we found only a few birds.  On day three the oil arrived in full force, and oiled birds were everywhere—on the beaches, floating on the water, on the island, stuck in boom, caught by oil skimmer boats. Most were alive. Our job was to capture them safely – not an easy task. We relied on our training, but experience was the best teacher. After a couple of tries at captures, I quickly realized we were dealing with three categories of oiled birds:  those that were covered in oil and couldn’t move; those that were clearly oiled but could still walk and swim; and those that were oiled, but could walk, swim and fly. It took time circling Grand Isle in the boat and watching the birds through binoculars to determine which birds were which; but knowing helped determine the best capture strategy.

The birds that were covered in oil just sat there, as if awaiting their destiny. Those, I could walk over and pick up in my net with relatively little fanfare.  Some were literally stuck in the oil, like one gull I found with only his little beak showing. I rescued him, but I doubt he made it.

With the oiled birds that could walk and swim, I’d make a quick run at them to take them by surprise.  If they saw me coming, they’d run into the water and start swimming away.  I found myself imagining it from the bird’s perspective: If some large creature in a white suit was chasing me, of course I’d run, even if that large creature was saying, “I’m here to help, I promise!”

The toughest birds to capture were those that could still fly.  If I was quick in the boat, I’d get one shot with the net and they wouldn’t be able to fly away fast enough; I’d scoop them up. They were usually pretty tired, and their long bills would go through the net and entrap them, allowing me to get them to safety.

Gulf_schlyer_June-4469-2One of the hardest parts was working in the rookeries, where there are thousands of birds, including chicks, at this time of year.  We had to weigh the possibility that disturbing 20 chicks to rescue one bird could be doing more harm than good.  We’d paddle around the rookeries in a pirogue to cause less disturbance. Sometimes we had to wait it out and watch a bird’s condition worsen while we were waiting for the opportune moment in regard to the chicks. Then it was also really hard to see these young, big, fluffy white pelican chicks finally hop down off their nests as they are programmed by Mother Nature to do, only to end up covered in oil—very likely a death sentence.

On the boat, we’d put the captured birds in one of four kennels for transport. One person would hold the bird while the other managed the kennel door. The trickiest part before, during, and after capture was ensuring that we minimized stress to the birds, which can also kill them. The weather was incredibly hot, a big stressor; so when we had a boatload, we would take them to the Grand Isle triage center, a State-operated “emergency room” for oiled birds staffed by a veterinarian and vet students from Louisiana State University.  They would take the life-saving measures of cleaning the oil from the birds’ eyes and nose/bills and giving them fluids. That done, they would send the birds on to Fort Jackson bird rehabilitation center in Port Sulfur, LA for a full de-oiling. Pelican in crate

My memories of two weeks of 12- to 14-hour days picking up birds are still pretty vivid.  Our team operated on pure adrenaline.  I guess you can say you don’t know what you can do until you do it.  We didn’t stop as long as there were still things to do.  If we had been out on the boat all day and a call came in saying there were birds on the beach in need of help, we just did it. We were trying to help every bird.

On a personal level, it was hard see Grand Isle and its natural resources under assault from the oil. I’ve been going to Grand Isle since I was a kid. It was a favorite vacation place for my family, and I go there to fish and play on the beach every year. I’ve got good friends affected by this disaster.  One owns a marina that had a charter boat, bait shop and a restaurant with a live band.  Now, the place looks like “oil spill central,” a headquarters for disaster response and clean-up.  

Being part of the Service’s oil spill response was my “trial by fire,” but there were some high spots that made it a great experience.  One of the best parts was working in collaboration with people from the State of Louisiana (including my fiancée), other parts of the Service, other Federal agencies, and the private sector. I met a lot of new, wonderful people. We had the same mission and goals and we pulled together.  As a result, we got a lot done.  At the heart of it, the way we worked is the only way to work in fish and wildlife conservation.  We are all in this together, in the good times and in the bad.

Looking forward, I know I can do more, and I want to do more.  I’m ready to go back as soon as I can.