Fish skin helped these bears burned in the Thomas Fire get back on their feet

A 5-month-old mountain lion cub wasn’t the only wildlife victim of the Thomas Fire — and he wasn’t the only one who had his wounds treated by sterilized tilapia skin.

Two adult female black bears were also severely burned by the wildfire last December, and they were taken along with the mountain lion cub to the California Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Wildlife Investigations Laboratory in Rancho Cordova, with consultation by Dr. Jamie Peyton, chief of integrative medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital.

Both bears had severe burns on their paws, UC Davis said, and the older bear was pregnant.

The younger bear suffered severe third-degree burns on all four paws. The burned paws were so painful for the bears that they could only sit with their paws off the ground, UC Davis said, and one of the bears continuously laid down to spare her paws.

Standard pain treatment is a problem for both the animals and their caregivers when it comes to wildlife with sharp teeth and claws, Peyton said. For safety, vets have to heavily sedate the animals every time they change their bandages or otherwise care for them.

“You can only anesthetize them so many times,” Peyton told The Associated Press. “It’s hard on them. We can’t do that to them every day.”

Putting pain pills in food also is problematic, because there’s no guarantee the animals will eat them, Peyton said.

Instead, Peyton and her colleagues used some of the alternative methods she already employs with other animals, including acupuncture, chiropractic treatment and cold-laser therapy.

The younger bear rests in her holding enclosure after her treatment is finished. The outer wrapping on her feet (made of corn husks) will delay her efforts to chew off the tilapia skin bandages underneath. California Department of Fish and Wildlife

Vets carried out the alternative treatments only on days when the bears and mountain lion were already anesthetized for bandage changes or other standard care.

“I adore them, but they’re wild,” Peyton explained.

Most helpful of all was a unique type of bandage made out of sterilized tilapia skin.

Peyton said she read about people in Brazil using the skin to successfully treat burns on humans and decided it was worth trying, UC Davis said. The high collagen level in the skin helps with healing, and it was fairly inexpensive.

The vets stitched the skin to the bears’ paws, then wrapped their feet with rice paper and corn husk bandages.

Bears being treated by Dr. Laura Peyton, chief of integrated medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife on Jan. 8, 2017. Peyton fit biologic bandages made from tilapia skin onto the badly burned paw pads of the bears. Karin Higgins UC Davis

“We made little spring rolls with their feet,” Peyton said.

The bears kept their bandages on, but the little mountain lion kept eating his, officials said.

After the bandages went on, the bear who couldn’t get up due to the pain started standing again, UC Davis said. Soon, both bears were walking around, and new skin began growing back on their paws.

“These individual animals have contributed to promoting how we’re going to treat burns in the future,” Peyton said.

CDFW released the bears back into the wild Jan. 18.

Since their original habitat had been destroyed by the Thomas Fire, officials moved dirt and logs to make winter dens for the bears in the Los Padres National Forest. Each bear is wearing a satellite collar so officials can monitor them.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

Gabby Ferreira: 805-781-7858, @Its_GabbyF

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