Thursday, August 1, 2013

A Lion's False Teeth

Last week I received a copy of an email sent to the Saskatoon Zoo Society, of which I was a member for many years in the 70s and 80s. A 14 year-old boy in Winnipeg explained how he has been told stories by his grandad about a lion. As Zachary wrote it “He used to be a professor of dentistry at the University of Saskatchewan during the 70’s and 80’s. He always used to tell me how you came to him seeking his help to make the world’s first set of dentures for a lion.

That was not quite how I recalled the case, but I have the advantage of a set of photos taken that day and a short article I wrote for the Journal of Zoo Animal Medicine (as it was in those days).

George (the lion) lived in a small enclosure at the Forestry Farm Zoo in Saskatoon. When I arrived in the city from Kenya in 1975 there had not been any sort of veterinary program there and no animals had ever been vaccinated for anything. This is only relevant to George the lion’s situation because he hated me with a passion. After only one injection, given when a keeper fed him some meaty tidbits through the page wire fence, he would not let me near him. He recognized me at a distance, even when I tried to disguise myself. On one occasion he even picked me out in a crowd when I took my family to the zoo and carried my then two-year-old son on my shoulders. He must surely have recognized my face, as my gait and shape would have been markedly altered that day.

So, when the keepers told me that George was off his feed, and had only been toying with the fresh chunks of meat and bone that he had been tempted with over the last couple of days, I knew we had to take action. With some planning we tricked the old lion. I went over to this pen, so of course he promptly headed to the other side, as far away from me as possible. Little did he know it but he was now in range for Stu, one of the team, to use my blowgun and get a drug cocktail into him.

Within a few minutes he was out cold so we could think about entering his pen, but not before checking that Queenie, the lioness with which he spent his days, was safely locked in the shelter. That part was simple, but we still took it very carefully. The first step was to bounce a rock of his backside. No reaction. On closer approach we could poke a long stick at his side. Still no reaction. 
Essential eye protection
 I checked his heart and breathing and then had a look at his mouth. 

Sore mouth, broken teeth. No wonder he was off his feed.
It was easy to see what the problem was. He had three broken canine teeth, the big ones that a lion uses to kill his prey. Two of them had nasty-looking pus-like material oozing out. No wonder he was of his feed. He must have been hurting.

I at once knew that I need some help with this one. By lunchtime I was back in my office at the WesternCollege of Veterinary Medicine and I had had an excited response after my call to the dental college across campus. Two mornings later we were back at the zoo. By we, I mean me and three dentists. This is almost certainly two more dentists than were actually needed, but it is not every day that a chance like this would arise. Indeed one of them has been telling his grandson about the case some thirty-five years later.

Immobilization was much easier this time because the keeper staff had shut Queenie out of the shelter and George was within easy reach for his injection. The dental team soon had a cast made of George’s mouth and promised to get everything done as soon as possible. They began to discuss idea for making up a set of metal crowns. 

A wild lion with a broken tooth, in this case an incisor
We discussed the whys and wherefores of how George had broken his teeth. I had seen broken teeth in wild lions, and had learned that this was sometimes caused by biting at a hard bone, but it is a rare event. In George’s case it was almost certainly due to his biting at the wires around his cage and catching the rear, concave surfaces of his teeth. When he pulled back they got stuck and could break off. Apparently this was a recognized hazard for lions in captivity. 

Our third immobilization, for a much longer procedure, took place a few days later. Again, George was easy to approach in his shelter and the routines were simple.  
Out of the pen, off to the trailer
I checked his heart and breathing, and pretty soon we were carrying him to a waiting flatbed trailer where I administered some eye drops to protect his corneas and we put a towel over his head. From there we shifted a very sleepy lion into the zoo van and headed to the college. Once there another team joined us—the anesthesia team. These were the folks who would have to keep both George and all the people safe for a couple of hours. We did not exactly want him waking up mid-surgery!

Pipe cleaners do have other uses!
At this point I was more-or-less supernumerary. The dentists took over for the root canal procedure, for that is what was needed. Not just on one tooth, but on three. They had come fully prepared. None of their usual delicate instruments was going to be of much use. To clean out the infected tooth roots they used coping saw blades that they had picked up at a hardware store. Flushing the mess out of the root canals was easier. Instead of their normal fine equipment they used large veterinary needles, there was no shortage of those around. To dry everything up they had sterilized a whole bunch of pipe cleaners.

The brand new caps in place on the casts. Perfect fit!
Now came the really clever bit. The dentists had designed stainless steel tooth caps that had no concave surfaces. If George got at the wires again the teeth would simply slip off as he pulled.

With the canals and teeth dry and clean it was simply a case of applying the right sort of cement, albeit in much large quantities than any previous human patient, inserting the pins into the channels and letting everything dry.

Ready to roll! No chewing problems now.
George soon adapted to his new finery. His appetite returned, and he lived on for quite a few more trouble-free years. There was a brief interlude of an idea to rename him Jaws, after the nasty guy played by Richard Dawson Kiel in the James Bond movie The Spy Who Loved Me. That did not last.

A display item at the WCVM
George’s skull, with teeth in place, is now a part of the collection of bones and other bits in the WCVM’s anatomy department. The unusual skull appears every now and again on special display days. They were never strictly dentures, as Zachary has been told, but at the time they were indeed the world’s only set of capped lion’s teeth.

A favourite photo from the Serengeti. I did not chekc the teeth too closely, but they looked fine


Zimbabwe said...

Amazing story, just shows what can be done. Have a good weekend Diane

Unknown said...

That's a wonderful job done by you guys. Lion should also be taken care like a person. Well I still fear how you took photos so closely to the lions. :) Its scary. In last photos both look good together and with new dentures.

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