Pregnant Bear Burned in California Fire Gets Acupuncture and Fish-Skin Paws to Help Her Walk Again

As a rule, news having to do with wildfires is bad, which is why this tale of scientific ingenuity from veterinarians with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife is so good. 

In the wake of Southern California's massive Thomas wildfire, the CDFW captured two adult bears—one of them pregnant—that had severely burned their paws (in addition to a cougar cub, which was not as badly injured). To treat them, veterinarians bandaged the bears’ paws in tilapia skin. It’s the first time tilapia skin has ever been used on an animal in this way. 

When the veterinarians with the CDFW Wildlife Investigations Lab first saw the bears, their paw pads had been burned off and the wounds were "oozing," according to a statement by the CDFW. One of them was in so much pain it couldn't stand, according to National Geographic.

Dr. Jamie Peyton, a veterinarian at the University of California Davis, told Newsweek over email that the Wildlife Investigations Lab treats mostly cats and dogs, plus some livestock and a few odds and ends like reptiles or exotic birds. This was their first time treating bears.

Burned bear 1_400px The Thomas Fire was the largest wildfire ever recorded in California. California Department of Fish and Wildlife

“The first bear that we treated was the inspiration for investigating and using the tilapia skin bandages," Peyton told Newsweek. "She needed something else to provide protection of the wounds, pain relief and accelerated healing."

While this was the first time anyone's applied tilapia skin to bears, it has been used to treat burns on humans in Brazil, though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration hasn't yet approved such usage in the United States. Tilapia skin has especially high concentrations of two key types of collagen proteins, which help damaged skin cells regenerate and can even reduce scarring. The bears were under general anesthesia for the process, so Peyton and her colleagues couldn't be sure how they'd react to their new fish mittens until they woke up. 

"The most profound initial response was the bear's willingness to stand and move around her enclosure," Peyton wrote. "This demonstrated to us that it was helping her pain and allowing her to use her feet." Payton also applied acupuncture to the bears' back and limbs, which helps manage pain the same way it can in humans. The tissue on the bears' paws began to heal at an accelerated rate.

38930141475_622d519e34_o The bears are the first to ever be treated with tilapia skin. California Department of Fish and Wildlife

In addition to a homemade burn salve, Peyton created a process of sterilizing the fish skin, which is why it did not occur to the bears that they woke up wearing snacks; the distinctive fishy smell is removed, so the bears most likely didn't recognize the material for what it was, Peyton explained. The tilapia skin was wrapped in rice paper and corn husks as a precaution, but the skin itself wasn't coated with anything to discourage the bears from licking or eating it; it has pain-relieving properties, and the team believes the bears chose to leave the bandages because they recognized how much more comfortable they were with them on.

The Thomas Fire ripped through Santa Barbara and Ventura counties in December 2017, becoming the largest wildfire ever recorded in the state of California. It's burned more than 281,000 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The bears have been released back into the wild.