SOUTH LAKE TAHOE, Calif. — Denise Upton, animal care director at Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care, got a call on Saturday, Dec. 12, from a biologist central California that a young, weak bear cub was trying to climb a tree and kept falling down.
After contacting the California Department of Fish and Wildlife and bringing the cub back to the care facility in Tahoe, Dr. Kevin Willits, LTWC’s veterinarian, discovered that the it had been suffering major burns to his paws.
All four paws had been burned, he had missing claws and his toes were fused together.
This cub was only 19 pounds, most bears at the same age are around 175 pounds.
“He was a mess,” Upton said.
They speculate that this cub got separated from its mother this summer during the fires near Sequoia National Park, hence his name Sequoia.
They reached out to Dr. Jaime Peyton, a veterinarian and chief of the integrative medicine service with the U.C. Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital who also is part of the Wildlife Disaster Network and is known for her work treating burned wildlife.
As fires ran rampant this year, firefighters were working to save the lives of humans, animals and homes. Wildlife Disaster Network, a partnership between the U.C. Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and CDFW was created to gather people and resources needed to aid wildlife during fires.
In 2017, Dr. Peyton treated two bears and a mountain lion who suffered burns from the Thomas Fire with the innovative treatment, tilapia skins.
With successful results, this treatment is now being used on all sorts of domestic and wild animals.
Dr. Peyton sent LTWC the tilapia skins and instructions the next day.
On Dec. 13, the skins were applied to Sequoia’s burned paws.
“It looks like it is doing what it is supposed to,” Upton said.
About 13 years ago, Upton said that LTWC was treating another bear, Smoky, who was burned in a wildfire and even with numerous salves and treatments it took months to heal.
This new treatment has origins in small, poor villages in Brazil, where burn victims were treated with tilapia skins.
Upton says that in a couple more weeks they will re-examine Sequoia’s burns, but as of now it looks like he’s on the path to healing.
With healing collagen and anesthetic properties, Upton says the skins are like a miracle worker. It even keeps the wounds from getting infected. Putting the skins on for a few hours helps the bear already feel better. The skins eventually dry up and fall off with time. Sequoia’s even received replacement skins already.
And no, Sequoia hasn’t tried chewing on his fish skin patches.
“We think his claws will grow back,” she said.
However, Sequoia won’t be hibernating like the rest of the bears this year. Upton says they will be needing to fatten him up until spring.