About two weeks ago, nine-and-a-half year-old Intan broke a tooth and needed a root canal.
But scheduling oral surgery for a 257-pound Malayan tiger is no ordinary procedure.
“It can be unpredictable,” said Dr. Gordon Pirie, staff veterinarian at the Baton Rouge Zoo. While these types of procedures are commonly performed at zoos across the country, “nothing is routine when working on a tiger,” he said.
Intan’s root canal was scheduled for Thursday afternoon.
A little before noon, Erin Dauenhauer-Decota, who is in charge of carnivores and primates at the zoo, went into the cages at the rear of the tiger exhibit, where Intan was resting. There she waited for a good shot before firing a dart filled with 8 cubic centimeters of tranquilizer into Intan’s flank.
“He started getting sleepy right away,” Dauenhauer-Decota said afterward.
As soon as Intan was unconscious, zookeepers loaded him onto a cargo net and carried him to a pickup truck with a cage in the back. Using the net, the keepers slid Intan into the cage, shut the doors at either end and hopped into the pickup for the short ride over to the zoo’s animal hospital.
Once there, the cage was opened, and a half-dozen keepers ported the tiger over to a scale. Intan was then lifted onto a gurney where, as his tongue lolled and Pirie held his mouth open, a breathing tube was inserted.
The limp tiger was then wheeled into the operating room, where Dr. Alfred Stevens, who specializes in animal dentistry, was waiting.
“We’ve done LSU tigers, tigers at the Audubon Zoo,” Stevens said. “It’s just the size of the tooth.”
The tooth that Stevens would be working on was Intan’s upper left canine, one of the big sharp ones seen when a tiger opens its mouth. Intan broke the tooth one night in late February, but keepers weren’t sure how.
“They just found it on the floor,” Dauenhauer-Decota said of the broken piece. Intan did not seem to be in pain from the broken tooth, but zoo staff took no chances, giving him smaller pieces of food to chew to minimize any further damage, she said.
When Intan was transferred from the gurney to the operating table, a team of more than a half-dozen keepers rolled him onto his back and Stevens tilted his head and began performing the root canal.
As soon as Stevens started working, another veterinarian, Dr. Jimmy Johnson, went to work on Intan’s back legs, examining them for problems.
“In a zoo, to do an exam on a tiger, he has to be sedated,” Johnson said. Since Intan was going to be out for the root canal, Johnson and others took the opportunity to give him a checkup and draw some blood.
Meanwhile, Stevens had drilled a hole in Intan’s tooth and was busy pulling out a several inches long sinew of “pulp” — the root, blood vessels, nerve endings and connective tissue of the broken tooth. If left untreated, the tooth could form an abscess and become infected.
After removing the pulp, Stevens cleaned and enlarged the hole, or canal, in the tooth before using pipe cleaners to dry it out. He then applied a sealant and three other materials to give the tooth a “hard, non-porous protection.”
The root canal should be good for the rest of Intan’s life, Stevens said.
Dauenhauer-Decota said Malayan tigers live about 15 to 20 years in captivity.
The Baton Rouge Zoo, which is run by the East Baton Rouge Parish Recreation and Park Commission, has two of the approximately 60 Malayan tigers in captivity in the United States, Dauenhauer-Decota said. There are probably fewer than 500 of the endangered Malayans left in the wild in Malaysia, she said.
Intan was acquired in April from the Little Rock Zoo in exchange for two other males. The Baton Rouge Zoo’s other two tigers are Sumatran.
As part of a program through the Association of Zoos and Aquariums, BREC’s Baton Rouge Zoo is participating in a Malayan tiger Species Survival Plan (SSP), Dauenhauer-Decota said.
As part of that plan, zoo staff hopes to be able to breed Intan with a female Malayan tiger, Nazira, she said.
“It’s all I think about,” Dauenhauer-Decota said. Such a breeding program could begin “in the next few months,” she said.
After an hour in the operating room, Stevens finished with the tooth, and staff loosened the restraints around Intan’s salad-plate sized front paws. Once Stevens gave the OK, staff reversed the process used when Intan was brought in.
First, on the gurney to the door, then onto the mesh and into the cage on the truck. As soon as Intan was on the truck, he was whisked back to his enclosure, where a reversal drug was administered.
“He was up and looking around right after that,” Dauernhauer-Decota said with a big smile. “It went really well.”
Intan was unconscious for about an hour and 45 minutes, Dauernhauer-Decota said.
She said it could take 12 to 18 hours for the drugs to clear his system and keepers would keep a close eye on Intan for the rest of the day before letting him rest Thursday night.
The keepers will return early Friday to check on Intan, Dauernhauer-Decota said.
Intan will be offered food Friday afternoon and depending on how he does, could be back on exhibit Saturday, Dauernhauer-Decota said. Keepers will continue to watch Intan closely for any sign of discomfort, she said.
Pirie said Intan, much like a human who has had a root canal, will remain on painkillers and antibiotics for several days.
“You can assume certain procedures are going to be painful,” he said. “We kind of extrapolate from the human experience.”
After 41 years, the experience of working on an animal like a tiger was exciting, Pirie said.
“Just touching them is a thrill,” he said.