It has been a couple of months since I
posted to this blog. This was not by intention but due to unexpected, and
un-wished for events in my life that seem to have been resolved. This post
takes me back thirty six and a half years to an unusual “consult” that I got
The most unusual case I have ever dealt
with came not from the Forestry Farm zoo where I did the veterinary work as
part of my duties at the Western College of Veterinary Medicine, but after a
1978 January Monday morning call from Calgary.
“Hello Dr. Haigh, this is Greg Tarry
from the Calgary Zoo. We met in the fall two years ago when you came to work
with Dr. Bim Hopf on that elk we got from Banff.” I at once saw in my mind’s
eye a dark-haired slim man who towered over my six feet. Dr. Hopf had been the
zoo veterinarian at that time.
“What can I do for you?” I asked.
“We have a problem. Our hippo Foggy
needs some attention and Dr. Hopf is no longer here. Foggy’s canine teeth do
not meet properly. The lower one on the left has not worn as it should. It has
grown so long that it cuts into the inside of his upper lip and he has quit
eating. He can’t even close his mouth properly and the lip has a big nasty
looking ulcer on the inside. The ulcer is bleeding. We think the tooth needs
cutting off, but of course we can’t do that without sedating him. Can you get
here and see if you can do anything please?”
“I guess his canines are not wearing each
other down as per normal,” I replied. “Of course I’ll come – I assume you will
cover my expenses.”
I was able to get away the next morning,
but before that I headed to the well-stocked vet college library to put on my
thinking cap about the “how to” and dig into the scientific literature to see
what I could find. My results were not encouraging. Three reports mentioned a
variety of drugs but all cautioned that this was a species that is difficult to
deal with. If they are in water the difficulty is greatly increased because
they are likely to drown as the drugs take effect. One even mentioned the use
of a road grader to be driven into the water to push the patient out on to dry
land before it becomes fully immobilized. Another suggested the drug fentanyl
with which I was very familiar. I had that drug in my lock-up safe. I had
immobilized over a hundred rhino with it and a few dozen young elephants,
dozens of African antelopes and quite a number of Canadian animals. In almost
all of those cases I had used a well-known sedative to enhance the effects of
the fentanyl. This fellow weighed half as much again as my rhino patients at
something over two tonnes, so I adjusted the dose accordingly.
The other important tip was that long
needles are essential.
No report mentioned anything about teeth
and that would prove to be as interesting as the drug issue.
The flight to Calgary was uneventful
and I soon found myself looking over a high wall at the hippo, which had been
locked out of his pool and was standing quietly in a passage between his
daytime and night quarters and mouthing but not munching on some lettuce. A
stout steel gate confined him at either end of the passage.
My first worry had been dealt with. The
patient was not going to be able to get to water at any time until we deemed it
safe. Next we descended and went to the front of his pen so that I could see
his mouth. This was not so successful, even with the aid of a flashlight, but
the keepers assured me that he needed help and I would find his left canine
tooth embedded in his upper lip.
After my blowgun system failed because
the dart simply bounced off his hide as if was a tractor tire I had to work out
|Two bulls duke it out. |
Given hippos’ fearsome reputation for
aggression I certainly was not going to stick my arm through the cage bars to
give a hand-held injection.
My wife and I had witnessed this
temperament when paddling on the Zambezi. Before we set out our whiplash thin
guide, named Christmas, admonished us to follow him carefully to avoid the home
territory of a known bad-tempered bull.
|Hippos can bite. Not good if you are in the canoe!|
To emphasize this he then took us past a canoe lying on the bank that
did not look exactly sound. Two jagged holes, each at least half a metre long,
had been ripped through the hull on one side. Christmas explained, “One of my
guests did not listen to me and went too close to a bull we know is bad. The
bull came up out of the water and bit the canoe. The man was very lucky. The
teeth went through the boat and missed his leg which was between those two big
teeth.” We had not needed a second warning.
For my challenging patient I rigged up a
syringe with a four-inch needle at its business end and attached it to the end
of a broom handle. I taped it in place with some duct tape, then climbed back
up to get a bird’s eye view of him. With a single thrust I pushed the jab stick
directly down into the back of his neck just right of centre.
Five minutes later I was at the front of
the passage, where Foggy had obligingly dropped to his haunches close to the
stout bars. It took only a moment to lift his lip and see the ugly infected
mess in his mouth and the spreading inflammation that readily explained his
lack of appetite.
Because the bull remained somewhat
aggressive, we waited ten minutes. I realized that he was not going to become
fully anaesthetised but was sufficiently sedated that we could proceed as long
as we got a rope onto his head to control him. All seemed well, so I asked the
keepers to fill up another big syringe with penicillin, which we stuck into his
shoulder region, again using a long needle.
I began to saw his tooth.
Angle grinders had not yet been invented.
If they had, it would have been the work of a few short moments to chop off the
top few inches of the offending tooth. In anticipation of the task ahead I had
packed a flexible wire used by veterinarians all over the world when they have
to do emergency obstetrical work to cut up a dead calf that is stuck in a cow’s
The Gigli saw was named after its
inventor, Italian obstetrician Leonardo Gigli, to make bone cutting easy. The Gigli was also carried by
British secret agents during WWII. Its main
feature is the very rough surface, a bit like a coarse file, that allows it to
cut through bone quickly and efficiently—a
great asset when doing amputations.
Dr. Gigli had surely never tried to
amputate a hippo tooth and I only just managed it. I used up the whole roll of
wire, all three metres of it. A few strokes back and forth and the wire broke,
naturally right in the middle where it had been grinding on the tooth. This
left two short pieces that I could not use. I quickly discovered that hippo
tooth is the hardest substance I had ever worked on. Thirty-six years later it
Eventually, by using ever-shorter pieces
of wire, and holding the ends in my hands
, rather than attaching them to
the handles that come with the equipment and require extra lengths for
attachment, I was able to get the job done . It took almost an hour.
All along I had been trying to keep an
eye on his breathing to see if my anaesthesia was working properly. I did not
want him to wake up prematurely or or perhaps to not wake up ever again. One of
Greg’s staff helped me by calling out the breathing rate and writing it down on
the medical record every now and again. Those papers I had read in the vet
college library had not filled me with enormous confidence.
There was one more potential problem. The
scientific articles had all warned that veins are difficult to find due to the
layers of fat all over a hippo’s body.
Either luck or instinct kicked in because the first place I tested was
his foreleg just below the bend of his elbow. That is the spot where nurses and
doctors, whether of humans or animals, have drawn blood from me and millions of
other patients. I located a nice fat
vein, as big around as a ballpoint pen. It was an easy hit.
A minute after the antidote began to
circulate in his body the hippo was standing and seemed none the worse for
We agreed to keep Foggy out of his pool
overnight and I headed home on the evening flight.
Dr. Doug Whiteside who very kindly sent
me medical records to refresh my memory, confirmed that after this event the
zoo staff took the very wise step of training Foggy to come to the cage bars to
trade goodies for good behaviour —in the form of lettuce and other favourite
foods. This enabled them to spend a few minutes every day gently grinding down
the other lower incisor tooth that threatened to create the same problem. This
surely a much more elegant and risk-free approach.
Foggy lived on until 2010 when the zoo
staff took the reluctant but humane step of euthanatizing him because his
advanced arthritis no longer responded to treatment. He was 47 years old when