The animal carrier shakes with the fury of the wild bobcat inside. When the lid is lifted, the cat crouches down and scans the nearby people.
Then he bounds up a tree and takes a perch on the furthest branch from his captors.
The cat’s release Sunday at the The Big Chico Creek Ecological Reserve was the end of an 11-week effort to apply innovative healing techniques to one of the many wild animals burned in the Camp Fire.
The bobcat was discovered three weeks after the fire ripped through Paradise. Bone was visible through the burns on his paws. He was emaciated, weighing six pounds – less than a typical house cat.
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He walked on bloodied paws until he was trapped and transported to Gold Country Wildlife Rescue in Auburn.
Finding wild animal victims to rehabilitate from large fires is rare, says Sallysue Stein, founder of the rescue shelter.
The animals either flee or die, she said. Those that are injured stay away from humans and die of their wounds alone.
“It’s not a pretty picture,” said Stein. “It’s not just a human disaster. It’s all of our natural resources, the trees, the animal life.”
Stein has treated five Camp Fire animal victims. Two have died, and two foxes are still under her care.
She has amassed a small army of volunteers to run the wildlife shelter, which provides care for about 3,500 animals.
Jaime Peyton at UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine agreed to treat the bobcat for free.
Peyton used an innovative technique of applying tilapia fish skin to the burns. Rich in collagen, the sterilized fish skin helps with healing and pain. The treatment has also been applied to several pets from the burned area — and Peyton hopes it can be applied to humans in the future.
The bobcat’s healing was expected to take 6 months but its skin grew back faster than expected. In addition to the fish skins, the treatment included cold laser therapy for antibacterial effects, pulse electromagnetic therapy for pain and a carefully orchestrated feeding process. But the bobcat will never have padded feet again.
Less than 11 weeks after admitting the cat, the shelter decided he was ready to re-enter the wild – in part because he’s angry.
“We take it as a really good sign if our patients hate us,” said Stein, who says volunteers do not bond with the animals to preserve their wild instincts. “He’s good and wild. He’s nice and fat and strong and I’m sure he’s going to live a nice long life.”
But on release days she takes a few moments to herself. She openly weeps as she looks up at the bobcat staring back at her from his perch in the tree.
The Chico reserve is used as a natural teaching area for Chico State University students. The area has other bobcats to mate with, and ground squirrels and rodents to eat.
Her group left the bobcat a parting gift of a dead pheasant near the tree.
“It was a lot of resources for one cat,” said Stein. “But I feel like if we don’t rehabilitate wildlife and we don’t take care of them today, with the growing human impact on their environment, they won’t have a tomorrow.”
Stein’s current goal is to raise $1 million for a new facility for the shelter. She’s already raised half the amount.