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Wild Medicine

Making house calls at the zoo

Your dentist treated a tiger. Your doctor just delivered a gorilla. Really?

At our very own Cheyenne Mountain Zoo, the local medical and dental communities generously collaborate with their veterinary counterparts in treating the zoo’s residents.

When it comes to their dental health, animals at the Cheyenne Mountain Zoo are in good hands. Dr. Jessie Mastin, a dentist who treats humans and dotes on animals, has been volunteering with the zoo since 1997. Since then, he has treated some 20 different species, including primates, mountain lions, Amur tiger, tapirs, meerkats, wallabies, and more. In other words, he’s put his hands in some very scary jaws.

Zoo animals suffer many of the same dental issues as people, and Mastin has treated most of them-fillings, extractions, bony sequestrums, cleanings and many root canals. All animals have a slightly different anatomy (mouth and tooth shape) that can make treatment challenging, Mastin says, and having appropriate instruments often requires ingenuity.

Among his many zoo patients was the lowland gorilla with a fractured tooth. Prepping the primate for a root canal-not for the fainthearted-involved intubation by an anesthesiologist and close monitoring by a team of veterinarians and keepers. 

Was he nervous? “A little as this was my first large animal,” Mastin says, “but he was a great patient.” He did not mention that a gorilla’s teeth can be two inches long. 

Removing a vertically fractured tooth from an Amur tiger was a difficult procedure that took two hours. But, Mastin says, “To see an animal enjoying life after treatment makes me feel gratified that I could be there.”

The zoo’s state-of the-art veterinary hospital is staffed seven days a week with three full-time veterinarians and three technicians. And when necessary, the entire hospital can become mobile and moved to an animal’s habitat.

In addition, board-certified veterinary specialists including surgeons, radiologists, opthalmologists and students from CSU’s College of Veterinary Medicine visit regularly to help with cases.

“We provide care for more than 750 animals, representing nearly 150 different species, with more than 30 that are endangered,” Liza Dadone, the zoo’s head veterinarian, says. And any of them can have health problems at any time. 

But when complicated medical emergencies arise, especially with great apes, doctors and dentists from our local medical community are called. Also, the Rocky Mountain Cancer Center in Denver has let the zoo use their cat scan for many cases. 

The zoo’s medical facilities and animal care were not always as advanced and forward-thinking as today. Back in 1996, two Colorado Springs doctors-anesthesiologist John Marta, and OB-GYN Roy Stringfellow-shared a rare event that earned them and the zoo a notable distinction: The second C-section ever performed on a gorilla in the world.

Their pregnant lowland gorilla, Juju, was bleeding heavily from a low lying placenta. The situation was dire and potentially fatal. The decision had been made to deliver by C-section, but the zoo’s then only veterinarian, Dr. Della Garelle, had no experience with C-sections.

It was New Year’s Eve. Who would be available to help? Dr. Stringfellow, the zoo’s primate surgical consultant who had performed hysterectomies and D&Cs on several primates, was called. A team was quickly put together to include Dr. Marta, Dr. Edward Lundblad to assist, Garelle, surgical nurses from Penrose Hospital, and the gorilla’s keepers. 

Because the hospital’s primitive facilities were lacking in supplies, Dr. Marta had brought his own monitors, fluids, catheters, and resuscitation equipment for mama and baby gorilla. 

Darting Juju did not go well at first, Dr. Stringfellow recalls. “She snatched it out, crunched it in her teeth, and threw the $500 shattered dart to the floor.” Another dart was fired, and the gorilla was moved to the clinic, intubated and anesthetized.

Dr. Stringfellow performed the risky and complicated ground-breaking surgery. It was a success but the baby was not breathing. For the next 1.5 hours, Dr. Marta used his manual bag resuscitator to breathe for the infant until she was doing so on her own and all was well. It was a cause for celebration.

“The baby, freshly delivered, was pristine-so pretty,” Stringfellow says. “She came out in excellent condition and has thrived.”

Later named Zuri, Swahili for “beautiful,” she was definitely not second banana to Caesar, the world’s first gorilla baby delivered by Caesarian section at the Los Angeles Zoo in 1977.

“The gratifying experience was to know that our team was responsible for saving the lives of two of the world’s endangered gorillas,” Dr. Marta says. Now retired and a member of the zoo’s Board of Directors, he reports that Zuri lives in the Toronto zoo and has her own offspring, “...which makes me a grandfather.”

For Dr. Stringfellow, “I donated some time, but what I took away in experience and joy in seeing good outcomes was a gift of incalculable value.”

The gap between human and veterinary medicine continues to narrow. It’s a good thought.