One Baby Pelican

One Baby Pelican

Michele Berger
Published: 04/19/2011
Seeing it again feels like a punch in the gut, that overwhelming sadness that comes from watching oil-drenched animals try to move through slick-covered water.

It’s been one year since the Deepwater Horizon explosion. Oil still seeps through Louisiana marshes and shows up on beaches along the Gulf, but the media’s all but left the spill behind. HBO’s new documentary, Saving Pelican 895, brings it back into focus, through the lens of one young pelican.

LA 895—the 895th oiled Louisiana bird that wildlife rehab picked up—was just 10 weeks old when he got covered in black goop, snatched by rehab crews, and separated from his family in the name of saving his life. The film follows him through his two-week rehabilitation journey, through the cleaning process with a stress level equivalent to running a marathon, his learning to feed again, even his release day.

It’s a poignant way to help viewers empathize with the creatures the accident inadvertently harmed and stunned. “What does this one little pelican have to do with it? Why follow one pelican? We were overwhelmed by the nature of what happened in the Gulf,” Sheila Nevins, head of HBO documentaries and the film’s executive producer, told a crowd at a Museum of Natural History screening. “Human species and animal species [were] all affected in a deep way.”

“Pelican 895 had never taken any acting lessons,” she said, lightening the mood for but a moment. “He was out there trying to grow up in nature, then life took a sudden turn.”

Director Irene Taylor Brodsky says they decided to follow a pelican because the prehistoric-looking birds just off the Endangered Species List became unintentional icons of the spill—both those that wildlife rehabbers could save and those that perished. “We were gonna stick with 895 whether he lived or died,” she says.

Though A69—LA 895’s new name after his release—survived the spill ordeal, researchers can’t predict for how long he’ll make it in the wild or what the long-term detriment might be. That’s the thing; we still know very little about the oil’s lasting effect. Saving Pelican 895 gives us insight into one more little piece.

The documentary airs on HBO at 9 p.m. this Wednesday, April 20.