Bear burned by California fires get fishy treatment

A 350-pound black bear bounded back into the woods of northern California this week, after recovering from severe burns to its paws suffered a month earlier in one of dozens of massive wildfires that swept across the state this summer.

The injuries had left this male bruin unable to stand in an area devastated by the so-called North Complex fire. Dr. Deana Clifford and a team of veterinarians treated the heavyweight so he could return to the wild.

"What is most common is when the animals are in a fire is that they get wounds to their paw pads right at the bottom of the feet, and if they've got that it's very tender tissue and then they usually cannot walk. And then that's the challenge. If they can't walk then they can't find water and they can't find prey."

Clifford and another top veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife launched a new rescue network for these animals.

And they're using an innovative treatment pioneered by physicians in Brazil who healed burn patients with fish skin.

"We put the prepared tilapia skin on, and that provides collagen to the surface of the burn. But it also provides a protective outside surface so that the raw paw pad isn't on the ground but it's now the fish skin that's on the ground."

The Wildlife Disaster Network has applied the tilapia preparations on all kinds of animals, including coyotes, foxes, bobcats and even domestic animals, as well as this mountain lion.

"Time to healing has so many factors. It's her nutrition, how she feels, her individual ability to heal."

Dr. Jamie Peyton is a co-founder of the rescue network.

“This is an area that’s still trying to heal, there’s no skin there. So all of this still needs to heal. But, what’s exciting is that this whole area used to look like this, but now, even within this short time using the treatment we’re using, this is all new skin. This is all new skin that has actually started forming and healing.”

The organization, modeled after a 25-year-old rescue network started at UC Davis for marine life and seabirds injured by oil spills, has also begun surveying some of California's major fire zones to collect data on impacts to wildlife and habitat.