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Fishskin bandages help treat bears burned in the Thomas Fire




One of the bears, ready to be transported back to the wild. After 10 days, most of the tilapia skin bandage is still intact.
One of the bears, ready to be transported back to the wild. After 10 days, most of the tilapia skin bandage is still intact.
Travis VanZant/ California Department of Fish and Wildlife

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When a wildfire strikes, humans aren't the only victims. Wild animals can be hurt too. After the Thomas fire, two injured bears and a young mountain lion were caught by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Dr. Jamie Peyton, a veterinarian with the University of California Davis was part of the team brought in to treat the animals for injuries including burned paws.

Dr. Jamie Peyton, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital examines burned bear paws.
Dr. Jamie Peyton, chief of the Integrative Medicine Service at UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital examines burned bear paws.
Karin Higgins/UC Davis

Peyton said she suspected there were more injured animals out there that hadn't been found because most animals avoid human contact when they are hurt.

"It so happened with these three animals, I think their injuries were so severe they came into areas with people and that was how they found them," Peyton explained.

Treating wild animals poses challenges. For the vets' safety and to avoid the wild creatures having too much human contact, the animals were sedated whenever they were being treated. Peyton said the team also used holistic and alternative medicine to help manage the animals' pain.

Another creative treatment solution the vets came up with was using fish skin bandages.

"When we were trying to decide what should we do, especially for the first bear that had basically no skin on her feet, we thought, let's look into some sort of protection that she could eat. Because that's a big factor. They can't have bandages that they could eat and then get an obstruction," Peyton said.

Dr. Peyton prepares a final tilapia skin treatment for the bears, before they are transported back to Southern California and returned to the wild.
Dr. Peyton prepares a final tilapia skin treatment for the bears, before they are transported back to Southern California and returned to the wild.
Travis VanZant/ California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The tilapia skin the vets used has other advantages too:

Peyton said time was of the essence when treating the bears because the team didn't want to keep them in captivity for a long time, and when they found out one of the bears was pregnant, they wanted to make sure her cub would be born in the wild.

Still sedated, the second bear is loaded into a trailer for the long journey back to Southern California.
Still sedated, the second bear is loaded into a trailer for the long journey back to Southern California.
Travis VanZant/ California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The bears have been released back into the wild in Southern California, and radio collars will allow them to be tracked in the future. The mountain lion was too young to be released into the wild, but Peyton said he has a new home at the Sonoma Wildlife Rescue.