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Oiled birds: To clean or euthanize?

Of all the photos documenting the effects of the oil spill (and there are some true stunners), the images of oil-soaked pelicans are among the most arresting and disheartening. One shows an immobile bird making a futile attempt to flap its wings. Another captures a brown and slimy creature opening its beak wide in what looks unmistakably like a shriek -- the avian equivalent, perhaps, of the desperate expressions on the faces of Gulf fishermen. At least, you tell yourself, these poor pelicans get picked up, cleaned up, and sent on their way -- feathers ruffled, daily routing upended, but not all that worse for wear (oil contaminates the birds but, if properly removed, doesn't cause permanent damage).

If you've been reassuring yourself with this rosy rescue story: think again. Silvia Gaus, a German animal biologist, has spoken out to advocate a "kill, don't clean" approach to handling the damaged birds. She's been joined by a chorus of scientific and environmental experts, including spokesmen for the World Wildlife Fund, who say that the low rates of survival for the birds -- estimated by Gaus to be a mere 1 percent -- mean that life-saving attempts just aren't worth the effort. The stress experienced by birds, they say, is simply too much: most, they predict, will go on to die of kidney or liver failure.

An editor at the Anchorage Daily News offered a less scientific perspective:

"Somewhere in America today, a child is going hungry while well-meaning people go to great lengths trying to save oiled Alaska birds destined to die shortly anyway...Why? Because rescuing these birds makes some people feel better about themselves."

If you don't buy either argument (and many don't: the executive director of the International Bird Rescue and Research Center called them "completely bogus"), there are a few facts you might bear in mind about the challenges of cleaning and saving oil-contaminated birds. In order to wash a single pelican, you'll need four pairs of hands (one bird rescue expert says with horror that she'd "never wash a bird alone"), a soft baby toothbrush, a handful of q-tips, a bottle of Dawn detergent (proven through "twenty years" of research to be the most effective de-oiling product), 300 gallons of hot water, and 45 minutes of your afternoon. Now multiply that by about a thousand.

This debate is just one of many unfolding between experts of all kinds in the aftermath of the spill. But it isn't hard to imagine how this tug-of-war between optimism (think "Save the Pelicans" bumper stickers) and fatalism ("just euthanize") might start to infiltrate other dimensions of the response effort. That is, if it hasn't already.

Win McNamee/Getty Images

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A major terrorism bust for Russia

It hasn't attracted a whole lot of attention yet, but Russia's announcement this week of the arrest of militant leader Ali Taziyev, better known as Emir Magas could be a devastating blow to the insurgency in the North Caucasus. Magas was officially second-in-command behind the better-known Doku Umarov in the hierarchy of rebels aiming to establish an Islamic emirate in the Caucasus.

Past FP contributor and Bishkek-based International Crisis Group analysts Paul Quinn-Judge explains that Magas is actually a more significant target:

[W]hile Doku has become largely a figurehead in recent years – the last link with the old generation of independence fighters and a symbol of the war’s transformation into a religious struggle  –  Magas was a frontline commander, a highly successful military planner and an astute organiser. He was one of the commanders of the bloody attack on Nazran in 2004. He is sometimes alleged to have taken part in the hostage taking at Beslan later that year. He claimed responsibility for a suicide attack in June 2009 that badly injured the president of Ingushetia, Yunus-Bek Yevkurov, and in the period between these events he united virtually all the small semi-autonomous groups of Islamic fighters under the command of the North Caucasus Emirate. This is an achievement that seems to have eluded his predecessor, Shamil Basayev.

The guerrilla movement was quick to confirm that Magas had been captured, and did not try to hide the gravity of the development. A long commentary on the Ingush jihadist site hunafa drew parallels with the early losses of Mohamed’s followers.  It described the capture as a “severe test” for the movement and for Magas. “May Allah give him strength,” the site said. 

Magas has been taken to Moscow for questioning.