Tuesday, February 25, 2003

My friend, Dr. Chris, is a vet and he recently removed a bone from a tiger's jaw while it was awake. Here's his story of life, love, and tiger surgery. Thanks to Seth for giving me a copy of the story that's posted on his site.

A bit of background for those who don't know: in addition to running his own vet clinic, Chris volunteers at a large animal sanctuary in southern Wisconsin, the setting for the tale:

"The Brave-Stupid-Instinct Triangle"

Last fall, I vasectomized a lion named Chaucer. Chaucer had just lost his brother, his sole companion of over a decade, and was as lonely the lioness across the hall from him. With no risk of cubs, we paired them up, and they got along quite well, after a fashion. Unfortunately, Chaucer took great exception to having his new girlfriend being looked at by their neighbor, Goliath the tiger. Chaucer decided against a leaflet campaign and went straight into combat, tearing down what had until then been a perfectly serviceable barrier between their cages.

If I could choose any half-ton predator to meet in a dark alley, it would be Goliath. He's a thousand pounds of very amiable fuzz; wouldn't harm a fly. It's tragic that Chaucer had to pick on the sweetest cat in the sanctuary. I won't detail the fight. Suffice to say they were quickly separated, but Goliath's face was full of holes. Big ones. We put him on antibiotics and only a month later, he was totally healed, save for one nasty spigot of pus on his left jawline. I was asked to take a look. In the cage. Without anesthesia. Goliath would be awake, too.

The singular attitude I purposely invite as my "instinct canvas" for dealing with big cats is that my life is in jeopardy every single second. No matter how friendly, no matter that we meet each other with a greeting chuff or a mutual shoving of shoulders, these top predators react to annoyance with alarming speed and stupefying might. Every assessment, every approach, every detail about their cage security is life and death for me and all the cats there. The mantra at the sanctuary is, "If anyone gets hurt, we bury them all." Which reminds me of the second thing that goes through my mind when going into their cage: "I don't have to be faster than the tiger, I just have to be faster than you."

Let me slip into present tense to give you a better sense of what it was like in the cage:

Even knowing that Goliath is the only animal we trust enough to enter his cage, he is hurt--and that means all bets are off. As usual, Goliath gives me a greeting puff, and shoves his head into my hand. It's a head the size of a quarter barrel, his nose is as big as my palm. Examining the open sore is difficult, because he's trying to play. He's sniffing the flashlight, he's sniffing my shoes. Imagine trying to dress a half-ton two-year old. Eventually we manage to distract him with petting from his "mom,"--the owner of the sanctuary--and I'm able to look at the wound. It's a two-inch pink hole, the hair around it is slick and matted with pus, and the smell is rank. (I promise, you have no idea what it takes to make a veterinarian think a smell is even "bad", let alone rank.)

So I brace myself to take flight and risk touching the fur near the wound, intellectually knowing there is no way I could react fast enough if Goliath gets angry. I'm kneeling on the ground in front of him, and even though Goliath is relaxing on the floor his four-inch canine teeth are only a foot away from my eggshell-thin skull.

No reaction to the touch. Whew.

I move the hair out of the way. No reaction.

Now I can see something sticking out of the wound edge. It's a round ball, dime-sized and dark yellow, like the fat on a leftover steak that's been in the fridge too long. I figure it's just that--connective tissue or fat that was torn loose in the fight, and is now simply doing what dead flesh does. (Eat your heart out, James Harriot.) My medicine-man desire is to touch it, explore it a brief, fleeting moment for texture and firmness, hoping it helps me guess what the heck it has to do with this oozing hole. I touch it, and it surprises me by being rock hard. Petrified hard. The next 5 seconds are a seizure of images and primal urges.

I recall three distinct and simultaneous surging "voices" in my mind. Let's call them Doc, Captain Safety, and Monkey Brain.

T minus 0:

Doc discovers the thing is petrified. "Fascinating. That should not be there nor feel that way."
Captain Safety says, "How can that not hurt? Where's the door? Let's find the door."
I say out loud, "What the heck is that?"

T minus 1: My thumb and forefinger seize upon the thing almost as a reflex.

Doc: "I wonder if that thing is loose. Let's find out."
Captain Safety: "What... what am I doing? Why am I grabbing this so hard?"
Monkey Brain: (Nervously pacing back and forth up until this point, stops pacing and stares intently at my fingers) Imagine a Tim Allen "puzzled monkey" noise: "uuueh?"

T minus 2: Goliath's "mom" asks me, "What is it? What did you find?" All I can eek out is a puzzled, "It's...."

Doc: "Hmm, it seems unattached. Let's rotate it back and forth to see just how loose. I wonder if there is any feeling in this area."
Captain Safety "Wait. What? Teeth. Death. Dismemberment. This can wait. Knock him out, and then do this."
Monkey Brain: (Eyes widen, pupils dilate.) "hoooh?"

T minus 2.5: My fingers gently rock the hard ball back and forth. I feel the unique sensation of bone grinding against bone.

Doc: "Huh. It's grating on something. I can't let go now. That has to come out. Pull on it."
Captain Safety: "Sour idea. Bad plan. Flashing teeth, roar, death. Stop, STOP."
Monkey Brain: (Fear grimace, and a low keening.) "hoooooo.........."

T minus 3: I begin to pull.

Doc: "Neat, it's coming out. Gosh it feels big. I wonder what this thing is? This is why the wound won't heal! Gosh, I am going to solve this. I rock."
Captain Safety: "Is pulling this out worth dying for?"
Doc: .... .... "Yes."
Monkey Brain: "Hoo, hooh, HOOOH, HAAAH, HOOOOOH ! !"

T minus 3.5: I feel a sliding, sucking, and gentle grinding. The thing keeps coming and coming.

Doc: "Wow. Freaky. Huh, interesting that Goliath isn't reacting to this at all."
Captain Safety: "Stupid. Stuuu-piiiid."
Monkey Brain: (In shock, lying down awaiting the oblivion of death, hoping it doesn't hurt too much.)

T minus 4: Pop. Out plucks this enormous piece of bone. Two huge plunks of saliva drip from Goliath's mouth, and he glances at me. Two enormous golden-green eyes focus on me from two feet away. I feel the breath exhaled from his nose on the back of my hand.

Doc: "Huh. Interesting. Bone. Jaw? Zygomatic arch?"
Captain Safety: "Gah... gah... mub... NAH."
Monkey Brain: (feels his adrenal glands screaming like dry ice squeezed in a pair of pliers.)

T minus 5: Goliath turns and shoves back into the noogies his mom has been giving him the whole time.

Doc: "I am a healer. I have helped my friend. He will get better now. That was worth 8 years of college."
Captain Safety: "I am a fucking moron. That was the stupidest thing I've ever done."
Monkey Brain: (Woozy with adrenaline, he lifts his eyes from the dirt.) "hoooo?...haa? "

I walked around in adrenaline shock for an hour. I'm going back in 2 days to check how he's doing. And there you go.


Doctor and patient shortly after surgery.


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