Gary Potter wasn’t paying much attention when he walked outside of his Monrovia home one night last September. And then he looked up.
There it was, the color of caramel, in his yard.
“The cat was stretched out right here in the grass, just staring at me. And I went, ‘hello,’” Potter said with a laugh in a video shot by the non-profit Cougar Conservancy. “And I just kind of slowly backed myself up and back into the house.”
The “cat” was a 7-year-old mountain lion. She came into Potter’s yard after the 115,796-acre Bobcat Fire, the second largest fire ever in LA County, ripped through the Angeles National Forest, behind Potter’s home.
Potter took some photos, assuming the big cat would eventually get up and leave.
“But then she didn’t leave,” Potter said. “She just licked and licked and licked her feet, and so I kind of assumed something was wrong here.”
The mountain lion was injured. Potter called the Cougar Conservancy, and they told him to just keep an eye on her. So Potter went to bed, but was awoken by a scream in the yard. He ran to look out.
“And the cat was standing there,” he said. “It hadn’t moved, but it was on all fours and it just looked like it was afraid to move. It was in extreme pain and it slowly walked away.”
Potter relayed that information to the Cougar Conservancy, which got state wildlife officials involved.
They captured her and reached out to UC Davis veterinarian Jamie Peyton and her team. Peyton had just a few weeks before started the Wildlife Disaster Network.
“In the past, there really weren’t many options for places to call,” Peyton said. “There wasn’t a really coordinated effort.”
The donor-funded Wildlife Disaster Network is a collaboration between UC Davis and the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. If you find an injured animal after a wildfire, you can call their hotline. Someone from the network will go out and check on the situation or capture the injured animal.
Peyton first started thinking about creating the network when she helped to treat an injured bear after the massive 2017 Thomas Fire in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. She was surprised she did not see more animals with burns.
“Out of these huge fires, we’re only seeing three animals,” Peyton said. “What’s happening to the rest of them?”
Peyton points to the record four-million acres burned in California in 2020. She said it used to be assumed that animals could outrun fires, but that was before fires started burning hotter and larger.
She had an opportunity to help out with treating injured animals in the Australian bushfires last year.
“There were so many volunteers going out and looking for these animals,” Peytons said. “And it just was very impactful to me that we were sharing these same experiences and that wildlife in all these areas needed help.”
Peyton came home and created a program based on the Oiled Wildlife Care Network, created to help oiled birds and wildlife in 1994, after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska. Peyton noticed that component was missing for wildfires.
“Before, wildlife wasn’t considered part of disaster response. It just was if we happened to see them, they were euthanized or we just let them do their thing. We just left them alone,” Peyton said. “But that just can’t happen anymore.”
The mountain lion in Potter’s backyard was not left alone. His call set into motion the Wildlife Disaster Network, sending wildlife officials to help. They drove the big cat up to the Wildlife Investigations Laboratory in Rancho Cordova, outside of Sacramento.
The veterinarian team looked at her burned paws, which are red, raw and almost look like hamburger meat. The skin was missing. Peyton wrapped them with bandages made of the skin of tilapia fish.
Fish bandages on a cat seems somewhat absurd. Won’t the mountain lion eat them?
“It’s not a stupid question! It’s probably like the number one question,” Peyton said, laughing. “When we put the tilapia bandages on, they don’t smell like fish anymore, so they’re not going to have that association that it’s a fish. We have seen such great pain relief that they don’t bother them or remove them as much as I would think they would.”
The bandages look like the Band-Aid you might put over a large cut. Peyton said they work much like artificial skin, providing pain relief and protecting the injury.
“The tilapia skin has a large amount of collagen. Collagen is what makes up a major part of our skin. And the collagen is sort of like a matrix. So when it is laid against a wound, a lot of the cells that repair that wound can actually grab onto that matrix,” Peyton said. “And I always kind of look at it as a jungle gym that the cells can grab onto and move across to help those wounds heal faster.”
During the 2020 California wildfire season, Peyton and her team also helped treat three bears, a bobcat, a bobcat kitten, a fox and a coyote.
Several weeks after they treated the Monrovia mountain lion, officials with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife were able to release her back “into her home range” in the San Gabriel Mountains.
She became the first ever to be captured, rehabilitated and re-released in California.
Usually one so hurt will die before anyone ever knows they’re injured. So the Wildlife Disaster Network has started hiking into wildfire areas after they’ve burned on reconnaissance missions to assess animal deaths and injuries. They started with a fire in northern California.
Injured animals can end up in neighborhoods even months after a fire, just like the Monrovia mountain lion, who a few weeks ago was caught on a trail camera, looking healthy as she roamed through the Rosemont Preserve in La Crescenta, about eight miles from where she was released.