Burned bear cub battles to live

SOUTH LAKE TAHOE — Li'l Smokey, a dehydrated 6-month-old black bear cub horribly burned by a wildfire, is fighting for his life at a care center in South Lake Tahoe.

"Everybody should keep some good thoughts for him because he is pretty critical," said Cheryl Millham, founder and executive director of Lake Tahoe Wildlife Care.

Her center is a licensed facility that rehabilitates and releases injured wild birds and animals.

The cub, weighing just 8.5 pounds, has been treated with antibiotics, other medicine and clean bandages each day. Until Monday, when his appetite flagged, he dined on peaches, pears, grapes and plums.

Millham credited firefighter Adam Deem, who found the bear in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest west of Redding Thursday, with saving the bear's life.

"This bear would have been dead right now, dying an agonizing, horrible death with burned paws if that firefighter had not picked it up," said Millham. "Thank goodness this firefighter had some compassion."

The bear has a rough road ahead. Pads on his feet must grow back, and the bear lacks toenails.

"If the pads regenerate and the toenails regrow," the cub could go back to the wild, Millham said.

Without claws, the bear cannot tear apart a log to look for grubs or climb a tree.

If Li'l Smokey survives but cannot be returned to the wild, he would be kept in captivity.

Li'l Smokey spends a great deal of time lying down because of burns, but he can stand on his four bandaged feet.

If the bear rebounds, he will be taught to enter water to fish, search logs stuffed with grubs and rummage for acorns.

Then, he will be sedated and placed in a snow den in January or February for hibernation in a location selected by the state Department of Fish and Game.

"The center puts it through a process so that it has the best chance for survival," said Steve Martarano, a spokesman for Fish and Game.

The rescue center is posting updates on Li'l Smokey at its Web site, www.ltwc.org.