Science Spotlight

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  • October 5, 2020

The burned paw pad of a bear found in the wake of the Bear (North Complex).

veterinary team working on a burned bear in the lab
Wildlife veterinarians document the bear’s injuries prior to treatment.

veterinarian applying talapia skin on the bottom of burned bear paw
Burn treatment protocol includes the use of sterilized fish skins as a natural bandage for damaged tissue.

veterinarian team working on a mountain lion burned in fires in the lab
Wildlife veterinarians assess a mountain lion that was burned in the Bobcat Fire.

burned paw of a mountain lion
The burned paw pad of a mountain lion found in the wake of the Bobcat Fire.

In early December 2017, wildlife veterinarians from the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and CDFW teamed up to try to save the life of a black bear that sustained third-degree burns in Southern California’s Thomas Fire. The innovative treatment involved the use of tilapia skins as natural bandages for the bear’s paw pads while she recovered from her injuries at CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Laboratory (WIL) in Rancho Cordova.

Before the month was out, two more victims of the Thomas Fire joined her – a second burned bear, and a young mountain lion. The fish skin treatments were successful and all three patients survived – the bears were released back to the wild, and the orphaned lion cub, which was deemed too young to survive on its own, was placed in a sanctuary. In August 2018, the Carr Fire near Redding sent a fourth burned ursine patient to the lab, which was again treated and successfully released.

The veterinary science was groundbreaking, and the opportunity so very exciting for the team involved, especially the project’s leads, UC Davis’s Dr. Jamie Peyton and CDFW’s Dr. Deana Clifford.

Unfortunately, these four cases were just the beginning, with additional wild animals being burned in the Carr and Camp fires. The 2020 fire season in California has been even more severe, with more than 7,700 individual fires consuming 3.7 million acres of wildlife habitat so far. On Sept. 11, the WIL received its first burn patient of 2020, a 370-lb. male black bear from the aptly named Bear Fire (which later became the North Complex Fire) in Butte County. On Sept. 21, the second patient, a female mountain lion from the Bobcat Fire in Los Angeles County, arrived. On Sept. 30, a 520-lb. male bear was brought in from the Zogg Fire in Shasta County.

“Both bears and the lion are receiving our burn protocol, including the fish skin bandages, and we are optimistic that their burns will heal so that they can be released,” Dr. Clifford said. “But it’s likely that we will receive more wildlife with burns … we are only halfway through the regular fire season.”

As California’s wildfires grow in intensity, size and frequency, our state’s wildlife veterinarians are being forced to reexamine the big picture -- how wildlife are faring, to what extent we should intervene and what our capacity is to do so.

“While we know what a devastating effect wildfires have on our human population – and, to a lesser degree, domestic animals – our knowledge about how wildfires affect wildlife (non-domestic animals) during and immediately after the disaster has been so limited,” Dr. Peyton said. “There’s always been this prevailing mindset that ‘they’ll get out of the way,’ or that they can manage if left alone, but that needs to change. With the increase in frequency and severity of disasters, wildlife cannot escape. Without human interference, these animals will suffer and succumb, due not only to their injuries but also to the loss of food, water and habitat. It is our obligation to provide the missing link for the wildlife that share our home.”

A successful response to this developing need will require resources – time, money, and professional expertise. In an effort to build these resources quickly and efficiently, CDFW and the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine have drawn up a proposal for a wildlife search and rescue, field triage, transport and long term rehabilitation care system for injured wildlife resulting from wildfires.

The Wildlife Disaster Network, as it’s been dubbed, is modeled after the Oiled Wildlife Care Network (OWCN) – a similar structure created in 1994 to mobilize volunteers and professionals to help save shorebirds and other wildlife that are injured during coastal and inland oil spills.

The new Wildlife Disaster Network will include veterinarians, wildlife biologists, ecologists, trained animal care volunteers and rehabilitation centers that follow the four core principles already set by the OWCN: readiness, response, research and reaching out. There will also be field reconnaissance in the aftermath of fires, conducted by UC Davis-affiliated staff, with the approval and oversight of Incident Command, when conditions are deemed safe to do so. In addition, they have established a hotline for first responders, utility workers, and the general public to call in for assistance with coordinating care for injured wildlife: 1 (800) 942-6459 (1-800 WHC-OIL-9).

“The idea is to create a collaborative process – which works within any existing emergency incident command structure – that brings experts together to respond to injured animals and prevent suffering,” Dr. Clifford said.

In addition to easing the suffering of animals that are trapped by wildfires in California’s changing climate, the vets hope that the Wildlife Disaster Network will allow for California’s wildlife veterinarians and disaster response professionals to add to their knowledge, and promote further collaboration with others to share this knowledge. The long-term impacts on wildlife from these massive disasters are also largely unknown and in critical need of further investigation and intervention, especially in areas with threatened species. All of the data collected by the participants of the Wildlife Disaster Network – such as necropsy reports on the animals who do not survive their injuries – will help build a framework of scientific knowledge that didn’t previously exist.

Initially, equipment used in this effort will be loaned on an as-needed basis by the OWCN and CDFW. Ongoing financial support for this effort will be through fundraising from private donors via a gift fund to be established by UC Davis.

“These animals in need of care are a visible, tangible and poignant reminder that climate-changed induced wildfires are impacting our wildlife and ecosystems,” said Dr. Clifford. “They remind us that each of us should continue efforts to reduce the impacts of climate change.”

Donations to the Wildlife Disaster Network can be given online at the link opens in new windowCalifornia Wildlife Conservation General Support website or by calling the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine, Office of Advancement, at (530) 752-7024.

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Media Contact:
Kirsten Macintyre, CDFW Communications, (916) 804-1714

CDFW photos

Categories: Science Spotlight
  • August 8, 2018

Map of area around Los Padres National Forest, showing where the bear tilapia
This CDFW map shows the routes
and distances traveled by both bears
since being re-released in January.


A light brown bear with a black muzzle sits on a green tarp in the bed of a navy blue pickup truck.
The older bear, safely on her way
back to the wilderness after being
tranquilized in Montecito by a wildlife
officer on April 2. (CDFW photo)

We have an update on the two black bears that were burned in the Thomas Fire in late December/early January! Both bears were suffering from extensive burns to their paws when they were brought to CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Lab in northern California. Under the care of CDFW Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Deana Clifford and Dr. Jamie Peyton of the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital, the bears were given an unusual experimental treatment involving the use of sterilized tilapia skins as bandages. After the bears were well enough to survive on their own, they were returned to the Los Padres National Forest, as near as possible to where they were originally found. Both have covered many miles and each has been spotted at least once since their release.

The younger bear was seen in an avocado orchard on May 29 by a biological consultant conducting a bird nesting survey. The bear ran away, which is a good sign that she has not become habituated. The consultant was able to get photos and video of the bear, who appears to be in good physical shape.

The older bear, who was pregnant during treatment and at the time of her release in January, came down from the hills and wandered into the town of Montecito on April 2. A local wildlife officer tranquilized her and returned her to suitable habitat, and she’s stayed away from people ever since. Though she was reportedly in good general health, there has been no sign of a cub, so the pregnancy may not have been carried to term or the cub may not have survived.

GPS collars on the bears allow CDFW biologists to track the animals’ movements so they can see where each one has been. Data shows the younger bear usually stays near Fillmore, but has made the 10-mile trek back to her release site in the Sespe Wilderness Area at least three times. She also made a brief trip over to Highway 5, north of Castaic. The older bear spends most of her time in the hills above Ojai. “We are encouraged and so pleased that both bears have survived for eight months now after burn treatment and release – they have walked hundreds of miles on their treated feet by now,” Dr. Clifford said.

CDFW will continue to monitor the movements of both bears via their satellite collars for at least another year. The data will ultimately help scientists build their knowledge of how animals utilize landscapes affected by large fires.

Read the original story of the Tilapia Bears at: https://tinyurl.com/y849mru7

Top photo: The younger of the two bears, as seen in an avocado orchard on May 29. (Photo by Jessica West)

Categories: General
  • January 22, 2018

silvery tilapia skin on the bottom of a bear's paw
The tilapia skin is visible on the bottom of the bear's paw.

Two veterinarians look at an ultrasound image, behind an anesthetized bear lying on her back.
Veterinarians perform an ultrasound to check on the progress of the second bear's pregnancy.

An anesthetized adult bear lies on her side, on a veterinary table, with eight acupuncture needles stuck in her legs, shoulder, paws and snout
Acupuncture needles assist with pain management.

A sad-looking bear looks up from an artificial enclosure
After placing the second bear, the team moved the first bear to another location where another man-made den awaited.

Two women and a man build a bear den of fallen logs and forest materials in the wilderness
CDFW staff work together to build a makeshift den for a soft release in Los Padres National Forest. A soft release involves putting the bear in a den to simulate hibernation, and leaving it to wake up on its own.

Two talented veterinarians, an environmental scientist and several dedicated staff members at the CDFW Wildlife Investigations Lab recently put their heads and their resources together to help heal a pair of adult bears that were badly burned in the Thomas Fire. The bears, which were treated at the same time as a young mountain lion with similar, less severe burn injuries, were released back to the wild last Thursday, after several weeks of intensive – and unusual – care.

CDFW Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Deana Clifford was acting manager of the Wildlife Investigations Lab in Rancho Cordova when the first bear – an adult female weighing about 200 pounds – was captured inside of a backyard aviary in the Ojai area on December 9. With CDFW Environmental Scientist Christine Thompson coordinating, CDFW Wildlife Officer Jacob Coombs darted the bear and local veterinarian Dr. Duane Tom evaluated its injured paws and overall condition. Thompson then conferred with Clifford, who determined the bear might have a chance at recovery if treated quickly. The bear was put into a trailer for the seven-hour transport to Rancho Cordova, where Clifford was waiting.

By the time the bear arrived, Clifford had already reached out to Dr. Jamie Peyton, Chief of Integrative Medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital, for help. Weeks earlier, Peyton, who works mostly on domestic animals, had mentioned to Clifford in passing that she had a particular interest in animal burns, and would be interested in helping wildlife if the chance ever arose.

Peyton created a homemade burn salve for the bears’ paws, and a process for sterilizing tilapia skin. Fish skin, which contains collagen, is often used by doctors in Brazil to bandage human burns. The technique is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States, and had not been tried on veterinary patients.

To help keep the tilapia skin in place, Peyton cut pieces to exactly match the size of the bear’s paws and then sutured them over the wounds while the bear was under anesthesia. Additional temporary wrappings, including rice paper and corn husks, were added, with the intention of stretching out the amount of time it would take for the animal to chew down to the fish skin bandage. “We expected the outer wrapping to eventually come off, but we hoped the tilapia would keep steady pressure on the wounds and serve as an artificial skin long enough to speed healing of the wounds underneath,” Peyton said. She also used acupuncture to aid the bear with pain management.

The original plan was for Peyton to come to the lab weekly to check on the bear’s progress. But within just a few weeks, two more burn patients arrived from the Thomas Fire. A second adult female bear, found relatively close to where the first one was found, was brought to the lab by Thompson on December 22. And on December 23, the young mountain lion arrived from Santa Paula. The experimental tilapia treatment was extended to the two newcomers as well.

Of the three animals, the mountain lion’s injuries were the least severe. Because of his young age, he was earmarked for placement in a wildlife rescue facility. The two bears were in much worse condition, with oozing wounds and, in some cases, paw pads that were completely burned off. But because the bears were older and stronger, the veterinarians hoped to return them to the wild if their injuries could be healed.

To complicate matters further, on December 28, during a routine burn treatment, Clifford’s team performed an ultrasound on each bear, and found that the second bear was pregnant. The quest to heal the mother-to-be was now a race against time.

“That was a game changer for us, because we knew it wouldn’t be ideal for her to give birth in confinement,” Clifford said. “We aren’t really set up to have a birth at the lab holding facilities, and we knew there was a high probability that she could reject the cub, due to all the stress she was under. We needed to get her back into the wild as quickly as possible.”

While Clifford and Peyton continued to focus on healing the animals’ injuries, Thompson started scouting out potential release locations. Since both bears needed to be transported back to Southern California, it was decided to try to return them at the same time – albeit not exactly in the same location – in order to make the best use of staff time and resources.

Both bears’ original habitat had been destroyed by fire, so Thompson scouted for two new locations that fit several parameters. The bears needed to be close to their home range, but not within the burn area, and near ample food and water sources. She also wanted to keep them as far away from each other as possible. “A lot of wildlife habitat was destroyed by the fire, and there are already a lot of displaced animals roaming around,” Thompson said. “So there’s a good chance that whatever location we choose is already occupied by other bears, but only they know exactly where that designated territory is. The best we can do is make an educated guess, and place them as deep into wild lands as possible.”

Taking the rapidly changing winter weather reports into careful consideration, the team chose Wednesday, January 17, as the target date to get on the road. That morning, Peyton came to the Wildlife Investigations Lab one last time and both bears were immobilized for a final treatment for their feet. Then the bears were placed into separate transport trailers for the long journey home. Simultaneously, in the Los Padres National Forest, Thompson and Tom spent the day digging dirt and moving logs to create a winter den for each bear.

“At this time of the year, most bears have established dens for the winter, but since these bears won’t have time to create a den, we hope to improve their chances of survival by creating a den for them so they have a home base and shelter right away,” Clifford explained.

The team arrived late Wednesday night, and both staff and bears were hosted overnight by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. Early on the morning of January 18, Clifford, Thompson, Coombs, Tom and their team drove the bears deep into the forest for the final leg of their journey. One at a time, each bear was sedated and carefully placed into her den, while the team finished constructing a shelter around the slumbering animal. The bears are about five miles apart, as the crow flies, and each is wearing a satellite collar so CDFW can monitor her movements and survival post-release. Staff also placed trail cameras near each den.

“We’re really hopeful that these novel treatments accelerated the healing for these bears and provided them the best odds of survival,” Clifford said. “It’s especially good to know that we’ve maximized the odds of survival for the cub on the way. We don’t know exactly when it will be born, but hopefully we’ll be able to monitor the movements of the mother via satellite, and that will give us an indication of how things are going.”

For Clifford, the entire experience wasn’t simply about saving the lives of two bears. The bigger picture involves the body of knowledge the experimental treatment provided – both to the Wildlife Investigations Lab team and to the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“This treatment has the potential to be used successfully on all kind of burn patients, both domestic and wild,” Clifford said. “For us, at the Wildlife Investigations Lab, it’s been an invaluable experience because California’s changing climate means that we’re likely to see more wild animals impacted by catastrophic wildfires. By better understanding what resources are needed to care for injured wildlife and what treatment techniques increase healing speed, we can make the most informed treatment decisions, reduce animals’ time in captivity and provide guidance to other facilities caring for burned animals.”

CDFW photos. For more, please see CDFW’s Flickr photo album: link opens in new windowThomas Fire Bears.

Top photo: The first bear rests in her holding enclosure after her treatment is finished. The outer wrapping on her feet (made of corn husks) will delay her efforts to chew off the tilapia skin bandages underneath.

Categories: General