2 bears badly burned in Thomas Fire now back on their paws

Two bears that were badly burned in the Thomas Fire are now back in the wild. (Photos: California Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Two bears that were badly burned in the Thomas Fire are now back in the wild.

It's all thanks to two veterinarians, an environmental scientist and several dedicated staff members at the California Department of Fish and Wildlife Investigations Lab who all helped to heal the pair of adult bears.

According to the CDFW, the bears were released Thursday after several weeks of intensive and unusual care for the burns.

CDFW says the first bear, an adult female, was captured inside of a backyard aviary in the Ojai area on Dec. 9. Veterinarian Dr. Duane Tom evaluated its injured paws and overall condition. The bear was then put into a trailer for a transport to Rancho Cordova for treatment.

Dr. Jamie Peyton, Chief of Integrative Medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital, created a homemade burn salve for the two bears' paws, and a process for sterilizing tilapia skin.

CDFW says fish skin, which contains collagen, is often used by doctors in Brazil to bandage human burns. The technique is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States, and had not been tried on veterinary patients.

To help keep the tilapia skin in place, the CDFW says Peyton cut pieces to exactly match the size of the bear’s paws and then sutured them over the wounds while the bear was under anesthesia. Additional temporary wrappings, including rice paper and corn husks, were added, with the intention of stretching out the amount of time it would take for the animal to chew down to the fish skin bandage.

“We expected the outer wrapping to eventually come off, but we hoped the tilapia would keep steady pressure on the wounds and serve as an artificial skin long enough to speed healing of the wounds underneath,” Peyton said. She also used acupuncture to aid the bear with pain management.

Within just a few weeks, the CDFW says two more burn patients arrived from the Thomas Fire. A second adult female bear, found relatively close to where the first one was found, was brought to the lab by Thompson on Dec. 22. On Dec. 23, a young mountain lion arrived from Santa Paula. The experimental tilapia treatment was used on the two newcomers as well.

Of the three animals, the CDFW says the mountain lion’s injuries were the least severe.

The two bears were in much worse condition. In some cases, the CDFW says paw pads on the bears were completely burned off. But because the bears were older and stronger, the veterinarians hoped to return them to the wild if their injuries could be healed.

Then on Dec. 28, during a routine burn treatment, the CDFW says Clifford’s team performed an ultrasound on each bear, and found that the second bear was pregnant. The quest to heal the mother-to-be was now a race against time.

“That was a game changer for us, because we knew it wouldn’t be ideal for her to give birth in confinement,” Clifford said. “We aren’t really set up to have a birth at the lab holding facilities, and we knew there was a high probability that she could reject the cub, due to all the stress she was under. We needed to get her back into the wild as quickly as possible.”

The treatment continued for another few weeks until the bears were healed enough to be released back into the wild.

Both bears were taken back to Southern California and released on Thursday.

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