Black bear in a man-made den
A black bear is released to a man-made winter den after being treated for burn injuries by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife photo)

Welcome to Noozhawk Asks, a feature in which you ask the questions, you help decide what Noozhawk investigates, and you work with us to find the answers.

Question: How are the bears doing who were treated for burns after Thomas Fire and reintroduced to man-made hibernation caves?

— Santa Barbara resident Katey O’Neill

There is finally an update on the two adult female black bears who were severely burned in the Thomas Fire, the record-setting blaze that burned 281,893 acres in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties.

Both bears (one which was pregnant) and a juvenile mountain lion, were given a unique treatment for their burned paws: applying sterilized tilapia fish skin to the injuries

The California Department of Fish & Wildlife Science Institute said at the time that the bears’ habitat was destroyed by the fire, so environmental scientist Christine Thompson scouted for new locations to release the bears. 

The team created a winter den for each bear and outfitted them with satellite collars so CDFW can monitor their movements after releasing them into the wild, the agency said in February. 

In an update, Thompson told the Ventura County Star that the bears are active and moving around, and appear to be doing well. 

The full story, reported by Cheri Carlson, is reprinted below. 

Black bear treated for burn injuries

A black bear dozes after being treated for burns on its paws suffered during the Thomas Fire. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife photo)

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Four months ago, a team left two bears, their burned paws wrapped in fish skin, in hand-built dens in Los Padres National Forest and hoped they would survive.

Their odds were steep. Much of their home had been scorched when the Thomas Fire raged through Ventura County’s backcountry.

The bears could barely walk when they were rescued within weeks of each other during the fire. But other than the severe burns, they seemed like healthy, adult bears. One of them was pregnant.

Dr. Deana Clifford, senior wildlife veterinarian with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, thought they had a good chance. They were brought to the agency’s lab in Rancho Cordova as the fire continued to burn.

Vets used homemade salves and sterilized fish skin to heal the burns, placing collagen-laden tilapia directly on their paws and wrapping each in edible bandages of rice paper and corn husks.

Sewing a bandage on burned black bear paw

Dr. Jamie Peyton, Chief of Integrative Medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital, sews a tilapia skin bandage onto a black bear’s burned paw. (California Department of Fish and Wildlife photo)

Then in January, teams brought the bears, sedated and outfitted with GPS collars, to the forest and left them in dens five miles apart.

So far, the bears are survivors.

“Everything is good,” said Christine Thompson, environmental scientist with California Department of Fish and Wildlife. “They’ve been roaming, making some distance.”

The collars were meant to provide pings every 13 hours. That hasn’t happened, likely because of the bears’ locations deep in a forest.

Without a camera, there’s no way to tell how the cub fared, but rough updates on the bears’ locations, some which came in this month, show normal bear-like movements.

“The good news is that based on that, we assume both bears are doing well,” said Kirsten Macintyre, communications manager for the state agency. “They are active and moving around, as they should be.”

Burned black bear paw

Two black bears suffered severe burns in the Thomas Fire and were treated with tilapia skin bandages and then released back into the wild.  (California Department of Fish and Wildlife photo)

That’s good news for the bears and for a treatment that was a first.

The fish skin treatment had been used on human patients outside the U.S. but never on veterinary patients.

Dr. Jamie Peyton, chief of integrative medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital, had treated Clifford’s cat. The two had talked about Peyton’s interest in burn treatments and Peyton had offered to help if wildlife were brought in.

When the first bear was found wandering in an Ojai backyard within days of the Thomas Fire’s start, Clifford called Peyton and asked to take her up on her offer.

Peyton was in the lab days later, using therapies from acupuncture to laser therapy on the 200-pound, wild patients. She even used a little aromatherapy to try to make their cages smell like the forest they had left behind.

She attached the tilapia skin, suturing around the edges to keep it in place and then wrapping their paws in bandages.

After just one treatment, one of the bears woke up from the anesthesia and stood for the first time.

It was a ticking clock as soon as the bears, treated at the same time as a 5-month-old mountain lion with similar, less severe burn injuries, were taken from the wild into the clinic.

Add in the pregnancy, and the vets didn’t think they could wait long enough for the burns to completely heal.

Recovery was faster than expected and the burns were 90 percent healed when the bears were released in January.

Since then, the calls about burned wildlife and domestic animals started coming in, including one from a colleague of Peyton in North Yorkshire, England.

A horse had been found abandoned with chemical burns from what officials said was likely someone intentionally throwing acid in her face. The 18-month-old was rescued and taken to the Rainbow Equine Hospital weak and unable to open her eyes.

A team treated her and called Peyton to ask about the tilapia skins. Peyton flew to England, skins in hand.

Working alongside other vets and doctors, Peyton used several therapies, including cold laser, and applied the fish skin.

Again, the animal’s pain improved quickly. Dubbed Cinders (as in Cinderella), she was eating well and let doctors examine her face a little bit more after the fish skin was applied, said Peyton, who has since returned to California.

She left tilapia skins behind so doctors there could continue the treatments. The latest reports on Cinders said she was gaining weight and showing signs of healing.

“She really is an amazing pony,” Peyton said.

While the interest has been great, she said there’s still a lot of research to be done before the treatment can be widely used. At this point, the tilapia treatments have only been used in a select number of cases.

“Our goal is to have it more accessible,” she said. “We want to make sure it’s perfected.”

Click here to read more from the Ventura County Star.