By Steve Gorman
Los Angeles – A 350-pound (159 kg) black bear was released by a veterinary team into the remote woodlands of northern California this week, newly healed from crippling burns it suffered last month in one of the state’s devastating summer wildfires.
The adult male bruin was the first of several four-legged fire victims admitted for medical treatment and successfully rehabilitated by a wildlife-rescue network launched in September by two of the state’s leading veterinarians.
One of them, Dr. Jamie Peyton, a specialist at the University of California, Davis campus, recalled being overwhelmed at the sight of the bear’s recovery, and the vitality the animal showed as it bounded away from captivity to freedom on Monday.
“When we found him, he couldn’t walk. He was crawling,” Peyton told Reuters in an interview the next day. “But what’s amazing is we can take that animal and in a couple of weeks literally get him back on his feet again.”
Perhaps just as astonishing is an innovative therapy administered to many of the network’s animals. Tilapia fish skins, rich in collagen, are applied as temporary dressings over their wounds to speed healing of burned tissue, a treatment physicians in Brazil pioneered for human burn patients.
The tilapia bandaging was part of the care received by the network’s newly freed ursine patient, nicknamed Barry – so dubbed because he was injured in the so-called Bear Fire and was found near the town of Berry Creek by a first-responder named Barry.
Severe burns to the sensitive pads on the bottoms of all four of his paws had left him hobbled and unable to effectively forage for food and water. Once recovered, he was returned to a secluded area untouched by fire and containing ample natural sources of food, water and shelter, about 25 miles (40 km) from where he was found.
A female mountain lion rescued with similar injuries from the Bobcat Fire near Los Angeles and treated at the same facility is likely to be discharged in a couple weeks, said Kirsten Macintyre, spokeswoman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW).
Caregivers at the agency’s Wildlife Investigations Laboratory in Rancho Cordova, near Sacramento, also check the animals for signs of smoke inhalation and ensure they are well-hydrated and nourished.
UNCOUNTED VICTIMS OF CLIMATE CRISIS
The mammals under treatment there are among an uncounted tally of wild animals likely injured, killed and displaced by scores of catastrophic blazes that have swept California and other western states since mid-August in a wildfire season of unprecedented dimensions.
Those fires have charred a record 4 million-plus acres of landscape and killed at least 31 people in California alone, while destroying some 9,000 homes and other structures across the state.
Experts say the intensity and prevalence of major conflagrations has steadily grown in recent years, stoked by bouts of blistering heat, extreme dry spells, fierce winds and lightning storms.
Scientists have pointed to the region’s incendiary weather, along with supercharged fuel beds overgrown with tinder-dry grass and scrub, as consequences of climate change.
Seeking to address an often-overlooked cohort of fire victims, biologists and veterinarians led by Peyton at UC Davis and her CDFW counterpart, Dr. Deana Clifford, teamed up to form the Wildlife Disaster Network.
The organization, modeled after a 25-year-old rescue network started at UC Davis for seabirds and other marine life injured by oil spills, has begun surveying some of California’s major fire zones to collect data on impacts to wildlife and their habitat.
They also plan to conduct search-and-rescue operations for stranded, injured animals, perform field triage and transport badly hurt wildlife to long-term rehabilitation facilities.
The new network draws on veterinarians, scientists and trained volunteers, along with 90 existing state-licensed wildlife rehab centers.
The CDFW lab began taking in fire-injured bears and mountain lions for treatment and rehab in 2017.
This year, the lab has treated Barry the bear, the female mountain lion from Los Angeles County and a 520-pound male black bear from the Zogg Fire near the northern California town of Redding.
Several other burned mammals, including a bobcat, a gray fox, a coyote and a bear cub found abandoned and clinging to a scorched tree were admitted to the Gold Country Wildlife Rescue facility in Auburn, California.
Southern California’s mountain lion population, already imperiled by fragmentation of its habitat by human development, could end up especially hard hit by fires.
The network recently rescued three mountain lion kittens orphaned in the Zogg Wildfire, one with burns. They will eventually be placed in a wildlife sanctuary or zoo.
“They’re barely a month old,” Clifford said. “Mom didn’t have enough time at all to teach them how to be mountain lions and to have the skills they need to survive in the wild.”