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Gulf Coast Pelicans Find New Home in Chicago

Even though oil has stopped gushing from a damaged well at the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, the extent of the environmental damage is still being calculated. Scientists and environmentalists are assessing the long-term effects on wildlife in the region. Some of those creatures injured by the oil spill, but saved from further harm, are finding new homes throughout the United States.

These American White Pelicans usually keep a summer home in the Mississippi Canyon area off the coast of Louisiana, before migrating north for the winter.

But the massive oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico not only disturbed that home… it prevented these birds from being able to flee one of the worst environmental disasters in the United States.

Tim Snyder is the Curator of Birds and Reptiles at the Brookfield Zoo outside Chicago.

"They've actually had injuries to their wings and that's what prevented them from actually migrating north, and if they had migrated north, they wouldn't have gotten into the oil mess," Snyder said. "Because they were oiled and are now non-flighted, they are unable to be released back into the wild."

The five White Pelicans were found drenched in oil several months ago, and were rehabilitated at the Jackson Zoo in Mississippi.

Their plight came at a time the Brookfield Zoo was seeking to add an exhibit showcasing the long-billed birds.
When Snyder and his staff learned about these pelicans, they offered to provide a permanent home.

"Our goal was to provide a long-term home for them, to use them to let them be an ambassador of their kind and other animals on the Coast and to help educate people on their plight," he added.

"It's an opportunity for people to see first-hand how damaging the effects of the oil spill can really be, and the animals that are being affected by it," said Michael Adkesson is a veterinarian at the Brookfield Zoo.

He cared for the Pelicans while they lived in quarantine for the first month after their arrival.

"By the Zoo being able to provide a home for these animals, it lets people in Chicago that are frankly a long way away from the Gulf of Mexico, it gives them an opportunity to see and experience first hand how damaging this spill can be," Adkesson added. "These are birds where if we had not intervened, they would no longer be with us."

To mark the end of their quarantine, and their first day in a new habitat, the Brookfield Zoo invited the public to attend a sort of "coming out party" for their newest residents.

Even though these birds of a feather can no longer flock together – in flight – they can swim, and took to the water of the Zoo's formal pool with a little help from the staff.

Hundreds of people from around Chicago turned out for the occasion… and hundreds of thousands more will have a chance to visit the pelicans, year round, at their new home.

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    Kane Farabaugh

    Kane Farabaugh is the Midwest Correspondent for Voice of America, where since 2008 he has established Voice of America's presence in the heartland of America.