As a result of unusually strong Santa Ana winds and a large amount of dry vegetation, the destructive wildfires that swept through Southern California this December were record-breaking.
Two bears and one mountain lion were caught in the crosshairs, receiving extensive burns to their paws and making any movement extremely painful. Jamie Peyton, a veterinarian at the University of California, originally assessed the animals’ recovery at 6 months.
So how did they recover in a matter of weeks? The answer: fish.
In a process never before used to treat human or animal burns in the U.S., fish skins where applied to the damaged paws of the black bears and the mountain lion, creating some scaly bandages.
Peyton had initially began the rehabilitation process with the normal medical procedure—cleaning the wounds, removing dead tissue, etc.—but the discovery that one of the bears was pregnant (which could result in trauma from giving birth in captivity) had Peyton searching for another answer.
She found it in Brazil. A group of scientists had successfully used sterilized tilapia skin to treat the burns of humans. The applied “bandages” transfer collagen, a protein that promotes healing, and has been found to reduce the need for pain medication.
“I thought this would be perfect. The skins are really, really strong, and it’ll help with pain control,” Peyton told the Washington Post. “We wrap their feet like tamales. They were known either as ‘tamale feet’ or ‘California bear roll feet. ‘”
Even after one application, the animals were showing signs of improvement. The bears could walk again, and the young mountain lion even began to play.
People were shocked when a six month recovery happened in just one month! While the mountain lion kitten was too young to be released, the bears showed such significant improvement that staff decided to move up their release. On Jan 16, after state biologists had searched for the best sites and even constructed some luxury dens, the bears were released with radio collars, ear tags, and some fresh tilapia skin to cover their paws.
Peyton intends to continue exploring this new and promising treatment, hopefully with just as fin-tastic results.