Staff and volunteers with the Wildlife Rescue Association of B.C. began the task, on Tuesday, of cleaning the 62 gulls rescued from a vat at an East Vancouver tofu processing plant.

The gulls somehow made their way into the waste tofu byproduct vat at Superior Tofu sometime Thursday night or Friday morning.

"Today we're bathing them. We're doing a full oil spill bath, even though it isn't exactly an oil substance — contaminant — on them. It was a powder, but it has become oily on their feathers," said Janelle Stephenson, the Wildlife Rescue Association's hospital manager.

"It will kill them, because they won't be able to thermo-regulate, and if they get into the water they will drown, because they won't be able to float, so they'll end up just going down. If it rains, also, they'll become hypothermic and they'll die."

Staff at Wildlife Rescue gave the gulls a couple days to try to clean themselves off, and they spent Monday in warm water pools, in hopes that would help rinse out the residue. 

On Tuesday, both staff and volunteers were called into the centre to begin the cleaning effort in earnest, after the residue remained on the birds' feathers.

Tofu gulls

Neil Merchant with the Wildlife Rescue Association gets into one of the cages to move a cleaned and dried gull to another pen. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

More than 30 people took part, scrubbing each feather by hand and using a toothbrush and dish detergent to clean the gulls' heads. The birds were then rinsed off and put into blow-drier-warmed kennels to preen themselves and dry off. 

The gulls seemed mostly calm, with towels over their heads and workers holding their bills shut, but Stephenson warned that handling them could be tricky.

"With gulls, they are quite dangerous. They do bite a lot. They have very sharp bills so we need to take safety precautions when we're [handling them] as well."

Tofu gulls

Volunteers Riley McDonnell and Jenna Duncan, along with the Wildlife Rescue Association's Neil Merchant, scrub one of 62 rescued gulls to remove a tofu byproduct residue. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Staff also checked on the birds' health, doing blood work and weighing each gull.

Stephenson said it was a huge job — Wildlife Rescue estimates the whole rescue will cost more than $10,000 — but she said it actually came at a good time. Once summer begins, the centre is filled with birds — staff handled more than 5,500 animals last year.

Staff and volunteers got through nearly half of the flock on Tuesday, with hopes the job would be complete Wednesday. The birds will then be monitored for a few days and released somewhere nearby.

"Everybody is doing a fabulous job. We couldn't do it without our volunteers," said Stephenson.

Tofu gulls

Wildlife Rescue Association's wildlife hospital manager, Janelle Stephenson, checks a gulls blood sample for its protein percentage. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)