New animal hospital to get first big surgical patient

Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium’s new animal hospital will be receiving its first big surgical patient – literally. Big, as in a 1,000-pound polar bear named Boris, who has an early morning dental appointment this Saturday. A dental and veterinary team will perform five root canal procedures – ouch! – on the massive animal’s worn teeth.

The procedure is scheduled to begin at 9 a.m. The surgery should take up to three hours, according to chief veterinarian Dr. Holly Reed.

Dr. Edmund Kwan, a Tukwila endodontist, and Dr. Rhonda Savage, who has a general dentistry practice in University Place, will perform the dental procedure. Both are donating their time and tools free of charge, Reed said, noting they have performed dental procedures on polar bears before. (For those wondering, an endodontist is a practitioner of the branch of dentistry that deals with diseases of the tooth root, dental pulp and surrounding tissue.)

The surgery aims to repair a broken canine tooth and others that are worn down to the pulp, Reed said.

“Food could get in there and cause an infection, and even expand into other diseases,” she explained.

Of course, sedating and transporting a half-ton, 11-foot tall (when standing on his hind legs) polar bear is no easy feat.

Boris will be rendered unconscious by an injectable anesthetic that is delivered via a dart gun, Reed said. “It will take about 10 minutes to take effect,” she said.

After making sure Boris is out, he will be placed on a stretcher especially designed to carry polar bears. The stretcher has a weight limit of up to a ton, Reed noted. A host of presumably strong people will then carry Boris out of his enclosure and place him in a truck for the short trip to the animal hospital. Boris will then be put onto a large animal surgery table at the hospital’s loading dock and transported to the operating room.

Despite the somewhat arduous task that is getting a large animal like Boris ready for major dental work, the new animal hospital is a step up from the past.

“We worked on him in the polar bear holding area,” Reed noted of previous medical procedures on Boris.

In addition to the surgical suite, the new hospital has treatment rooms, laboratory and diagnostic facilities, an observation area for tour groups, animal quarantine and holding areas, administrative spaces, a commissary and storage.

Reed said the surgical suite provides a safer environment for the surgery, with more sophisticated equipment such as improved lighting and superior machinery for delivering anesthesia.

“It’s certainly more conducive to doing the procedure efficiently and appropriately,” she said.

Boris will be intubated with a gas anesthetic, Reed noted, to keep him under during the surgery.

Reed plans to give Boris a physical examination while he is anesthetized for surgery. Boris, believed to be 19 years old, shows signs of mild arthritis, and has a history of chronic intermittent foot abscesses on his rear feet.

Still, Reed expects Boris to make it through the surgery and recovery period just fine. She said she’s never had to give painkillers – aspirin or stronger anti-inflammatory medication – to any polar bear after dental surgery. “They are pretty tough, no doubt about it,” she said.

Boris will be groggy following surgery, she said, but he should be up and about by 6 p.m. the same day. Zoo staff will monitor Boris to keep an eye on his coordination and to make sure his swallow reflex is functioning. Boris will probably be eating normally that evening, Reed said.

Boris and Kenneth were among six polar bears seized from a Mexican circus touring Puerto Rico in November 2002. Point Defiance Zoo agreed to provide sanctuary for the two aging bears, who joined two polar bears already at the zoo.

“They had limited veterinary care,” Reed stated. Since the bears’ arrival on Nov. 19, 2002, the zoo staff has nursed them back to good health. Both bears spent their lives as circus performers, first in Germany, then in Latin America.

The bears are not considered elderly, but certainly are well past middle age. In the wild, polar bears seldom live beyond 18 to 20 years. In captivity, they can live into their late 20s and 30s.