Environmental Law

How to Help Wildlife After an Oil Spill

Fish, birds, and other wildlife are often some of the first casualties of an oil spill. We've all seen the news footage and images showing such tragedies in the aftermath of the 2010 spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

Mounting Casualties

By late June 2010, two months into the ongoing spill in the Gulf, it was reported that over 900 birds were killed because of exposure to oil. Undoubtedly, that number will rise as the spill has yet to be contained as of mid-July. Also, it's almost certain that scores of fish and other marine life will suffer the same fate - or have suffered it already.


The attorneys general from several states all along the Atlantic coast have contacted BP and others connected to the spill about damages to the environment and wildlife in their states. Damages that have happened already and may yet come. Basically, they told BP they plan to hold it responsible for the damage.

These states probably have an argument, too. State and local governments may file claims against BP and the escrow account for spill-related damages and expenses.

Some groups like People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have a novel idea. They're urging state officials to consider filing criminal charges against BP for cruelty to animals. These laws vary a great deal from state to state, but violators typically face fines, jail time, or both for each violation.

This is a long shot. Most animal cruelty laws require an intentional act - like physical abuse - or a failure to act - such as not giving an animal food, water, or shelter - to trigger a violation. BP's negligence in allowing the spill to happen probably doesn't qualify as either. It's arguable, though, BP's failure to adequately address the impact on wildlife in its spill response plan could satisfy some cruelty laws. It's an interesting issue to keep an eye on.

What You Can Do

Rescue and prevention efforts are underway throughout the Gulf region and along the coast. There are ways you can help. For instance, through Network for Good, you can find volunteer opportunities to rescue injured animals and wildlife and help prevent more damage. You can also find charities and organizations taking donations to help pay for rescue efforts and the costs of medical care and treatment.

Either way, be careful. If you volunteer and plan to visit areas hit by the spill, be mindful of your health. Water, soil, and animals contaminated with oil may pose health hazards to you. Consider wearing the same protective clothing workers use when actually cleaning up the spill.

Don't be too quick with your checkbook, either. Disasters like the Gulf spill give scammers a great opportunity to take money from people like you who want to help. Donate wisely. Take steps to make sure a charity is legitimate and will use your money properly. Check with the Better Business Bureau, and if you suspect fraud, contact the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and your state attorney general's office.

Oil spills like the one in the Gulf are indeed tragic. Your willingness to help is welcome and appreciated. Just make sure you don't become a victim of your own generosity.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Can individuals or groups sue oil companies and others for cruelty to animals like they can sue for other environmental issues?
  • Is there any chance of getting my money back if I donated to a scam charity?
  • Other than health concerns, are there any reasons why I shouldn't volunteer to help save wildlife?
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