Nelly Zann

Four Years Ago Today

On TV a pel­i­can has been bronzed and stilled by oil. A jour­nal­ist reports from the beach in Venice, Louisiana, a fish­ing town that used to like being called the end of the world. Animal con­trol spe­cial­ists are truck­ing in crate after crate of unrec­og­niz­able water­fowl. Egrets and blue heron are being heli­coptered in from Grand Isle. It’s Day 46 and over 400 birds have come through. “It’s like they were dipped in fon­due,” the jour­nal­ist says.

The bird clean­ing squad has set up shop in an un-air-con­di­tioned ware­house. The han­dlers work quick­ly to keep the shocked birds from preen­ing and eat­ing oil. Shifts are twen­ty min­utes long because the heat index is 105.

A work­er in a yel­low HAZMAT suit and a face wind­shield rubs veg­etable oil into the wings of a brown pel­i­can, redun­dant, but a way to loosen the crude. The bird fid­gets, molest­ed by con­cern. Not being touched is one of the ben­e­fits of know­ing how to fly. After the Crisco mas­sage the pel­i­can is bathed with blue dish wash­ing liq­uid, which breaks down the grease. The work­er uses a tooth­brush to clean around the eye. The bird doesn’t blink. How to touch and not change? Or be changed? It will be put into a rest­ing cage. A heat lamp will dry the feath­ers with­out burn­ing skin, and now, final­ly, it can preen and lay­er them back into insu­la­tion, begin­ning with the soft down, work­ing out to the pin­ion.

The restored birds will be band­ed with ankle bracelets in case they get oiled again, because the rig is still leak­ing and what they know is to spot fish and dive. They will be tak­en on a boat miles away from the spill and let go to fly.

Nelly Zann lives in New Orleans and New York.