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To heal scorched bear paws, California vets craft a bio bandage

In our NewsHour Shares moment of the day, when two black bears were burned in a California wildfire, veterinarians used a treatment never tried before on animals.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Now to our NewsHour Shares.

    When two black bears were burned in a California wildfire, veterinarians used a treatment never tried before on animals.

    Our Julia Griffin explains.

  • Julia Griffin:

    December's Thomas Fire was the largest on record in California, scorching more than 280,000 acres and destroying more than 1,000 homes.

    But while most human residents could escape the inferno, two black bears rescued by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife weren't so lucky. Trapped by the flames, they had suffered severe second- and third-degree burns to their paws.

  • Jamie Peyton:

    This is all that is left of her normal pad.

  • Julia Griffin:

    For U.C. Davis veterinarian Jamie Peyton, addressing the bears' injuries would require outside-the-box thinking, namely, treating the burns with tilapia skins.

  • Jamie Peyton:

    The bear, I will tell you, is probably the one that really inspired me to look into the tilapia bandages, because her wounds were so extensive and her pain was so severe. She was the one that made me say, you know, I need to do something else. What else can I do?

  • Julia Griffin:

    Peyton knew doctors in Brazil had seen success in treating human burn victims with sterilized tilapia skin and was keen to try it on her animal patients.

  • Jamie Peyton:

    If you look at the literature, treating wild animals that have experienced this degree of burns just hasn't been done.

  • Julia Griffin:

    The collagen in tilapia skin acts like a biological bandage, protecting and moisturizing the skin while promoting healing. And in this instance, Peyton wrapped the sutured wounds with corn husks to delay her patients' attempts to eat their edible dressings.

    Positive results were almost immediate.

  • Jamie Peyton:

    Nothing is more rewarding than when you take an animal that won't walk because she's so painful. And we try a new therapy, and put those bandages, the tilapia skin, on her feet, and right after we got done, and she woke up, she stood up for the first time and was able to walk.

  • Julia Griffin:

    A speedy recovery was crucial. Limiting the bears' time in captivity would greatly improve their chances of long-term survival, especially since one was pregnant and would be better off delivering in the wild.

    So, while Peyton oversaw the bears' final treatment, Fish and Wildlife officials set in motion plans to release them, building two manmade, bear-approved dens five miles apart in unburned portions of Los Padres National Forest.

  • Woman:

    Bye, sweetheart. You are a good girl.

  • Julia Griffin:

    Sedated and secured, all that was left to do was deliver the bears to their new homes.

    Her patients discharged, Peyton reflected on the success of her unique treatment plan.

  • Jamie Peyton:

    The tilapia skin, in my opinion is, one of those things that, you know, people said to me, what? That doesn't makes sense. You can't do that.

    And when someone says, you can't, I always think to myself, oh, I will. And I will make it happen, because I'm just passionate about these animals and about helping them and allowing them to heal.

  • Julia Griffin:

    The California Department of Fish and Wildlife continues to monitor the bears' progress with trail cameras and GPS trackers.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Julia Griffin.

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