Burned Bears: Fish Skin Wraps Healed Burns Faster After Wildfire

Peyton, a veterinarian at the University of California at Davis, had treated cats and dogs with burns before, and she knew these were severe.

Two bears and a mountain lion burned in the recent Southern California wildfires have recovered after getting a new treatment for their paws: grafts of fish skin. She also gave the bear an acupuncture treatment to help it bear the pain.

Fish skin, which contains collagen, has already been used by doctors in Brazil to treat human burns but the technique is not yet approved for use in the US.

The rescuers brought the creatures to the state Department of Fish and Wildlife for treatment.

Barely able to walk on burned paws, the bear had wandered into a backyard near Ojai just days after the Thomas Fire ignited.

"In our view, there was no downside", said Peyton.

"One animal can change the face of medicine", said Peyton. "She was more mobile, which in my mind is a huge success for pain control".

The skins were also advantageous because they could be eaten without causing digestive problems like synthetic bandages might, the Post reported. "We can't do that to them every day".

Vets stitched skins to two bears' paws and wrapped them in bandages of rice paper and corn husks.

A fast recovery was imperative, especially for the second bear.

Peyton had read a news story about scientists in Brazil successfully using sterilized tilapia skin on human burns and chose to try the technique on the bears.

According to officials, it was the first time fish skin had been used to treat burns on animals. But it's cheaper and widely available, because it's a byproduct of tilapia sold as food.

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

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It took Peyton and her team several days to obtain the fish skins and sterilize them in the lab, but the payoff was worth it.

"I thought this would be ideal", she said.

The bears also received acupuncture for pain management, a treatment that vets may use for domestic pets, but have never tried on wild animals before, though the principle and layout of pain points are similar, Macintyre said.

"We wrap their feet like tamales", she said.

The bears stood soon after waking from sedation, a sign of improvement.

Another form of treatment seemed most helpful of all for the bears, vets said. The kitten also had burned paws, though less severe, and a burned cornea on his right eye. "Once he started feeling better, he was playing". One of the bears was pregnant and likely would have her cub in a matter of weeks.

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.

With two bears, she needed two locations miles apart.

One of the first things that the bear did was stand up after we applied them.

"We wanted to give her particularly Cadillac accommodations", Macintyre said. Wildlife officials decided the bears were ready for release in mid-January.

The bears are the first to ever be treated with tilapia skin.

The team will now rely on satellite tracking collars and nearby trail cameras to watch what happens next. Macintyre said they're hoping to see footage of a bear cub in the coming weeks. The cougar cub is not old enough to be released and is now at a wildlife rescue center but is similarly healed. He'll go to a wildlife rescue center, Macintyre said. When the first bear showed up, Clifford called and asked if the offer was still good.

  • Michelle Webb