The younger 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. Image: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

In early December, the Thomas Fire erupted in Southern California. By the time it was fully contained some five weeks later, it had upended the lives of thousands of people. It also affected countless wild animals, including two bears that suffered severe burns on their paws.

Less than two months later, those bears have made a miraculously quick recovery and are back in the wild thanks to an innovative healing technique: fish skin bandages.

Two adult female black bears, along with a five-month old mountain lion, were rescued shortly after the fire by rescue workers. The bears had suffered third-degree burns on their paws, and one of them was too injured to even stand up. (Warning: The photo below is pretty gnarly, if you’re squeamish about burned skin turn back now.)

Bear brought to CDFW Wildlife Investigations Lab has severe third-degree burns on its paw. Image: Karin Higgins / UC Davis

Jamie Peyton, with the UC Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital and Center for Advancing Pain Relief, originally estimated it would take four to six months for the wounds to heal. That was too long to keep the bears in captivity, especially after it was discovered one was pregnant. Frequently changing bandages and administration of pain medication were also serious logistical hurdles. So, she helped come up with an unusual healing technique.

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According to a news release, Peyton had heard about a group in Brazil using sterilized tilapia skins to treat human burns. She decided it was worth a try. The payoff was near immediate, as the sutured fish skins allowed the bears stand on their own, a sign that the burn pain was less crippling. In a matter of weeks, new skin had grown back on the bears’ paw pads.

The tilapia wraps, which were made from live fish purchased at a nearby market, last for about 10 days before turning leathery and losing the collagen necessary to help repair skin. Along with the fish bandages, the bears also received acupuncture, chiropractic treatment, and cold laser therapy to help with pain and healing.

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Even though the bears’ original habitats were destroyed by the fire, they were released back into the wild on January 18, where their burns will continue to heal. Officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife moved dirt and logs to create new winter dens for them in Los Padres National Forest.

The Thomas Fire burned more than 280,000 acres, destroyed over 1,000 structures, and forced over 100,000 people around Santa Barbara and Ventura to evacuate their homes. As California continues to recover from this conflagration and others, Peyton sees great promise in the new technique for treating future victims.

“One animal can change the face of medicine,” Peyton said in a statement. “I think these bears and the mountain lion are inspiring us to think outside the box. These individual animals have contributed to promoting how we’re going to treat burns in the future.”

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A view into one of the bear dens created by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in the Los Padres National Forest. This younger bear wears her satellite collar so she can be monitored. Image: California Department of Fish and Wildlife

The CDFW posted a complete photographic overview of the bears’ rescue, recovery, and release. The images are more graphic than those included here, but also more illuminating. Take a look for yourself.