Giving a Grizzly Bear a Root Canal

Albert Lewandowski is the chief veterinarian at the Cleveland Metroparks Zoo.

A grizzly bear needed a root canal, so we called a consulting dentist who used to be the zoo director’s dentist. He had bugged the director for a long time to see if the veterinarians needed any help.

When he and another dentist, a buddy of his, showed up, I put the X-ray up on the box. The abscessed tooth was about six to eight inches long. Those two guys looked at the X-ray, going, “Oh, my God.” This was beyond anything they’d ever done in their lives.

At the time, we didn’t have the new hospital, so we went up to the bear den. “I will handle the anesthesia,” I said. “You guys need to do the dental work.”

We use a capture pistol to immobilize the animals with a combination of drugs — your typical cat, dog and horse drugs. When you dart bears, because they have a huge fat layer, you have to use a really long needle, a 3-inch needle.

You have to dart ’em over the shoulders, because if you dart ’em in the butt, they’ve got so much fat, the needle won’t penetrate and give you a good intramuscular injection, and they don’t fall asleep. They’re kind of in a twilight zone. The last thing you want to do is walk into the cage and have a bear stand up on you because he’s not really asleep.

We test the depth of anesthesia before we open the cage door. Most people are a little shocked by this, but I’ll take a scrub brush or a broom and whack ’em as hard as I can. If they don’t take the end of the broom off, then it’s probably safe to open the door.

After they’re asleep, it takes eight people to move a bear. Saying they weigh 600 or 800 pounds doesn’t really make an impression, until you realize their feet are 8 inches wide! This bear’s head is bigger than if you balled yourself up!

We use mouth gags, metal spring-loaded things that keep the mouth open. Then we intubate the bear and put him on gas anesthesia. We’ll put an IV in him, so if there’s an emergency, we’ve got a line in to run fluids to him.

It was July, it was hot, it was humid, it was miserable. These two dentists are working up a sweat like you wouldn’t believe. It was work.

They actually had to do the tooth in a couple of parts, because the tooth curved so badly. So the bear, Warren, still has a little tiny spot on one of his teeth, where they had to drill. We used Hedstrom files, a spiral wire that your dentist puts inside the root of the tooth to pull the pulp out.

I’d had those files fused onto a stainless steel bone pin, so they were about 10 inches long.
We must have worked on that bear for four or five hours. We came back, and these poor guys were drenched with sweat. I apologized to them. The consulting dentist looked at me and said, “I’ve been a dentist 50 years. This is the most fun I’ve ever had in my life!”

- as told to Erick Trickey

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