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Badly Burned Ursines Get Back on their Feet – Thanks to Teamwork and Fish Skin

Badly Burned Ursines Get Back on their Feet – Thanks to Teamwork and Fish Skin

silvery tilapia skin on the bottom of a bear's paw
The tilapia skin is visible on the bottom of the bear's paw.

Two veterinarians look at an ultrasound image, behind an anesthetized bear lying on her back.
Veterinarians perform an ultrasound to check on the progress of the second bear's pregnancy.

An anesthetized adult bear lies on her side, on a veterinary table, with eight acupuncture needles stuck in her legs, shoulder, paws and snout
Acupuncture needles assist with pain management.

A sad-looking bear looks up from an artificial enclosure
After placing the second bear, the team moved the first bear to another location where another man-made den awaited.

Two women and a man build a bear den of fallen logs and forest materials in the wilderness
CDFW staff work together to build a makeshift den for a soft release in Los Padres National Forest. A soft release involves putting the bear in a den to simulate hibernation, and leaving it to wake up on its own.

Two talented veterinarians, an environmental scientist and several dedicated staff members at the CDFW Wildlife Investigations Lab recently put their heads and their resources together to help heal a pair of adult bears that were badly burned in the Thomas Fire. The bears, which were treated at the same time as a young mountain lion with similar, less severe burn injuries, were released back to the wild last Thursday, after several weeks of intensive – and unusual – care.

CDFW Senior Wildlife Veterinarian Dr. Deana Clifford was acting manager of the Wildlife Investigations Lab in Rancho Cordova when the first bear – an adult female weighing about 200 pounds – was captured inside of a backyard aviary in the Ojai area on December 9. With CDFW Environmental Scientist Christine Thompson coordinating, CDFW Wildlife Officer Jacob Coombs darted the bear and local veterinarian Dr. Duane Tom evaluated its injured paws and overall condition. Thompson then conferred with Clifford, who determined the bear might have a chance at recovery if treated quickly. The bear was put into a trailer for the seven-hour transport to Rancho Cordova, where Clifford was waiting.

By the time the bear arrived, Clifford had already reached out to Dr. Jamie Peyton, Chief of Integrative Medicine at the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital, for help. Weeks earlier, Peyton, who works mostly on domestic animals, had mentioned to Clifford in passing that she had a particular interest in animal burns, and would be interested in helping wildlife if the chance ever arose.

Peyton created a homemade burn salve for the bears’ paws, and a process for sterilizing tilapia skin. Fish skin, which contains collagen, is often used by doctors in Brazil to bandage human burns. The technique is not yet approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States, and had not been tried on veterinary patients.

To help keep the tilapia skin in place, Peyton cut pieces to exactly match the size of the bear’s paws and then sutured them over the wounds while the bear was under anesthesia. Additional temporary wrappings, including rice paper and corn husks, were added, with the intention of stretching out the amount of time it would take for the animal to chew down to the fish skin bandage. “We expected the outer wrapping to eventually come off, but we hoped the tilapia would keep steady pressure on the wounds and serve as an artificial skin long enough to speed healing of the wounds underneath,” Peyton said. She also used acupuncture to aid the bear with pain management.

The original plan was for Peyton to come to the lab weekly to check on the bear’s progress. But within just a few weeks, two more burn patients arrived from the Thomas Fire. A second adult female bear, found relatively close to where the first one was found, was brought to the lab by Thompson on December 22. And on December 23, the young mountain lion arrived from Santa Paula. The experimental tilapia treatment was extended to the two newcomers as well.

Of the three animals, the mountain lion’s injuries were the least severe. Because of his young age, he was earmarked for placement in a wildlife rescue facility. The two bears were in much worse condition, with oozing wounds and, in some cases, paw pads that were completely burned off. But because the bears were older and stronger, the veterinarians hoped to return them to the wild if their injuries could be healed.

To complicate matters further, on December 28, during a routine burn treatment, Clifford’s team performed an ultrasound on each bear, and found that the second bear was pregnant. The quest to heal the mother-to-be was now a race against time.

“That was a game changer for us, because we knew it wouldn’t be ideal for her to give birth in confinement,” Clifford said. “We aren’t really set up to have a birth at the lab holding facilities, and we knew there was a high probability that she could reject the cub, due to all the stress she was under. We needed to get her back into the wild as quickly as possible.”

While Clifford and Peyton continued to focus on healing the animals’ injuries, Thompson started scouting out potential release locations. Since both bears needed to be transported back to Southern California, it was decided to try to return them at the same time – albeit not exactly in the same location – in order to make the best use of staff time and resources.

Both bears’ original habitat had been destroyed by fire, so Thompson scouted for two new locations that fit several parameters. The bears needed to be close to their home range, but not within the burn area, and near ample food and water sources. She also wanted to keep them as far away from each other as possible. “A lot of wildlife habitat was destroyed by the fire, and there are already a lot of displaced animals roaming around,” Thompson said. “So there’s a good chance that whatever location we choose is already occupied by other bears, but only they know exactly where that designated territory is. The best we can do is make an educated guess, and place them as deep into wild lands as possible.”

Taking the rapidly changing winter weather reports into careful consideration, the team chose Wednesday, January 17, as the target date to get on the road. That morning, Peyton came to the Wildlife Investigations Lab one last time and both bears were immobilized for a final treatment for their feet. Then the bears were placed into separate transport trailers for the long journey home. Simultaneously, in the Los Padres National Forest, Thompson and Tom spent the day digging dirt and moving logs to create a winter den for each bear.

“At this time of the year, most bears have established dens for the winter, but since these bears won’t have time to create a den, we hope to improve their chances of survival by creating a den for them so they have a home base and shelter right away,” Clifford explained.

The team arrived late Wednesday night, and both staff and bears were hosted overnight by the Ventura County Sheriff’s Department. Early on the morning of January 18, Clifford, Thompson, Coombs, Tom and their team drove the bears deep into the forest for the final leg of their journey. One at a time, each bear was sedated and carefully placed into her den, while the team finished constructing a shelter around the slumbering animal. The bears are about five miles apart, as the crow flies, and each is wearing a satellite collar so CDFW can monitor her movements and survival post-release. Staff also placed trail cameras near each den.

“We’re really hopeful that these novel treatments accelerated the healing for these bears and provided them the best odds of survival,” Clifford said. “It’s especially good to know that we’ve maximized the odds of survival for the cub on the way. We don’t know exactly when it will be born, but hopefully we’ll be able to monitor the movements of the mother via satellite, and that will give us an indication of how things are going.”

For Clifford, the entire experience wasn’t simply about saving the lives of two bears. The bigger picture involves the body of knowledge the experimental treatment provided – both to the Wildlife Investigations Lab team and to the UC Davis Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

“This treatment has the potential to be used successfully on all kind of burn patients, both domestic and wild,” Clifford said. “For us, at the Wildlife Investigations Lab, it’s been an invaluable experience because California’s changing climate means that we’re likely to see more wild animals impacted by catastrophic wildfires. By better understanding what resources are needed to care for injured wildlife and what treatment techniques increase healing speed, we can make the most informed treatment decisions, reduce animals’ time in captivity and provide guidance to other facilities caring for burned animals.”

CDFW photos. For more, please see CDFW’s Flickr photo album: link opens in new windowThomas Fire Bears.

Top photo: The first 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.

Scientists Battle Mange Outbreak in Urban Kit Fox Population

Scientists Battle Mange Outbreak in Urban Kit Fox Population


a healthy San Joaquin kit fox walks on a grassy field
a San Joaquin kit fox, its face ravaged by mange
a kit fox with mange sits on an exam table with a red calming mask on its face
the mange-ravaged back and tail of a kit fox, with bloodied thighs
healthy-looking San Joaquin kit fox after treatment for mange
a kit fox with fur returning to normal after treatment for mange
auburn-furred kit fox, held on an exam table, after mange treatment

Fate has not been kind to the San Joaquin kit fox (Vulpes macrotis mutica).

Shrinking habitat caused by urbanization and agricultural expansion landed this Central Valley native on the federal Endangered Species List decades ago. California’s total population of San Joaquin kit foxes may now be down to a few thousand animals. To make matters worse, its favorite food, the kangaroo rat, is likewise endangered as the desert habitat it prefers continues to disappear.

Wildlife biologists took heart, however, in a population that seemed to be thriving within the city limits of Bakersfield. Unlike San Joaquin kit fox populations in other parts of the Central Valley range, the Bakersfield foxes adapted quite nicely to urban life. Their number – estimated between 200 and 400 animals – has evidently seemed to be holding steady and possibly increasing.

Their cute and cuddly appearance make them popular with city residents. Earlier research showed the population was healthy and genetically robust. Wildlife biologists were counting on those urban foxes to ensure the species’ survival should kit fox populations completely collapse elsewhere.

Today, those Bakersfield kit foxes are under siege, suffering from an outbreak of highly infectious sarcoptic mange. Mange – a skin condition caused by parasitic mites -- leads to hair loss, open wounds from scratching and, ultimately, death. The first case was detected among the kit fox population in March 2013, and since then, more than 200 cases have been documented. The epidemic has grown worse every year.

Given the importance of the Bakersfield population, CDFW, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the California State University, Stanislaus, the University of California, Davis (UCD), and various nonprofit wildlife groups have all joined forces to combat the mange.

Jaime Rudd, an environmental scientist in CDFW’s Wildlife Investigations Lab in Sacramento, is leading CDFW’s efforts while simultaneously writing her UCD Ph.D. dissertation on the outbreak. Rudd is researching ways to prevent mange from spreading to healthy animals, and assisting Stanislaus State’s Endangered Species Recovery Program with trapping and treating diseased foxes.

Severely diseased kit foxes are trapped and transported to the California Living Museum, a Bakersfield wildlife rehabilitation facility and zoo. There, the kit foxes are hospitalized, given life-saving antibiotics and fluids and treated with a topical pet product that kills the mites. The foxes often need months of treatment before they are healthy enough to release. And although the intervention saves individual lives, the process is costly and time-consuming – and doesn’t prevent the treated fox from getting mange a second or third time.

Rudd is making good use of her undergraduate degree in molecular biology, analyzing the DNA of the mites to see if they might be related to those in dogs and coyotes, which could be spreading the mange to the foxes.

“Essentially, we want to look at their molecular signature to see if these mites are related,” Rudd said.

Rudd is studying a group of wild kit foxes living on the CSU Bakersfield campus, which no doubt are supplementing their diet with burger bits and pizza crusts discarded by college students. Rudd is monitoring the group with trail cameras, outfitting some foxes with radio tracking collars and others with the type of preventative flea and tick collar you might use on a pet dog or cat.

“We want to evaluate the efficacy of these collars,” she said. “If they’re only going to work for two months, the collars won’t help us slow down the spread of mange, so is it really worth the effort of putting them on? But if they’re going to work for five months or more, then it might be worth the effort.”

If there is any hope sustaining Rudd and her colleagues in this important, though often disheartening, work, it’s this: “The fact we are not seeing mange in the outlying populations is cause for optimism,” she said. “If nothing else, we can at least try to keep it from leaving the city.”

The top photo is a female San Joaquin kit fox with sarcoptic mange. The next six photos show a progression of mange in one of Jaime Rudd’s Bakersfield study animals, a male kit fox. The photos show a healthy animal in January 2017 before getting mange. The next three shots show him infected with mange in July 2017. The next two are four weeks after treatment for mange in August 2017. CDFW photos by Jaime Rudd.

The last photo is another kit fox, six weeks after treatment. Photo by Erica Kelly, Endangered Species Recovery Program (ESRP), a multi-agency/university program at CSU Stanislaus.

To see CDFW Scientific Aide Megan O’Connor release a treated San Joaquin kit fox back to the CSU Bakersfield campus, click here.



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