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Matt Gillis, Deseret News
Geese stand in a pen at Salt Lake County Emergency Operations Center after being cleaned by county workers.

SALT LAKE CITY — Armed with dishwashing liquid and vegetable oil, county workers are striving to save the ducks and geese turned refugees from the weekend's oil spill.

"We've learned this from consulting with others doing animal decontamination in the Gulf and all over the country," said Matthew Hurtes, Salt Lake County emergency management specialist.

Thirty-two homeless fowl are at the county site, while about 300 are being cared for at Hogle Zoo.

Inside the warm county building, two soggy geese were huddled in their cage, trying to dry off together. A lone damp seagull peered sadly from behind metal bars.

Clean and happy, running about in an outside pen, were 14 mallard and hybrid (mixed breed) ducks, nine adult geese and six almost-grown goslings.

Chevron and myriad government agencies continue to deal with the aftermath of the oil spill that dumped an estimated 33,000 gallons of oil into Red Butte Creek. The spill spread to the lake in Liberty Park and has since continued on to the Jordan River and the Great Salt Lake.

The county has set up a fowl triage tent — a temporary emergency center operating 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at 3380 S. 900 West in Salt Lake City.

Workers have been decontaminating birds since Monday. Over the weekend, volunteers cleaned approximately 300 birds. Hogle Zoo has been housing the fowl as a temporary emergency measure until the county can assume the intake process.

The geese at both sites are scheduled to be set free Friday. They will be rounded up at 9 a.m. and shipped to the Clear Lake Waterfowl Management Area, a wetland near Delta in central Utah.

While the geese are wild, the ducks are domesticated and will be held at the zoo and county site until Liberty Park is clean enough for them to return home. This could take up to a month or more, county officials said.

Cleaning the geese and ducks has been a dirty but rewarding job, say county workers at the emergency center.

A hazardous materials tent, the same type that is used to aid humans, contains a table with three black plastic washtubs for lathering and rinsing. It takes two workers to treat each bird.

"Most of the birds, after you put them in the initial dip, realize you are there to help them and calm down throughout the rest of the process," said Abbi Farnsworth, Salt Lake County animal control officer.

"But they are wild animals," Farnsworth said. "They don't like being handled by people."

If the fowl is drenched in oil, the workers coat it with Wesson vegetable oil to first offset the heavy crude oil. The bird is then gently scrubbed in a warm bath with Dawn dishwashing liquid.

Some of the birds have to be washed up to four times to remove all the oil. They are then dried with an absorbent disposable paper towel.

Unfortunately, washing the fowl removes the natural oil in their feathers. The birds need a couple days to dry off and then a few more days to recoup the natural oil that leaves their feathers waterproof.

The workers must don plastic suits, double gloves and boots to protect themselves from the petroleum and the animal. The discarded oil is collected below the wash tubs and siphoned into barrels.

Working under Chevron, private contractor Enviro Care Inc. has provided supplies such as the plastic suits and barrels as well as disposing of the contaminated oil.

Hurtes said there is no financial estimate yet on the treatment, housing and feeding of the fowl, but the county is billing Chevron in accordance with the county's cost recovery ordinance, which addresses the release of hazardous materials. Meanwhile, the county agencies will continue to foot the bill.

The wild geese being housed at the zoo and county site had been scheduled to be rounded up at Liberty Park last Sunday to be relocated to the Delta-area wetlands. These geese are "troublesome urban birds" that rapidly reproduce and have to be shipped out periodically, said Tom Aldrich, Migratory Game Bird Coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife. A total 1,500 geese have been transported this year.

Before the geese in Liberty Park this past weekend could be relocated, the oil spill hit.

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Coordination of the fowl rescue efforts involves Salt Lake County emergency management and animal services, the Unified Fire Authority, the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Utah Department of Wildlife Resources, Hogle Zoo employees and many volunteers.

Residents who find an oiled wild bird or animal are advised to not handle the creature themselves. Call the Department of Wildlife Resources/Utah Highway Patrol at 801-887-3800 or the Unified Police Department at 801-743-7045.

e-mail: astewart@desnews.com