Jaka the Sumatran Tiger goes to the dentist
Going to the dentist is one of my least favourite places to go, just a mention sends shivers down my spine. But when Ken Millwood (who works at Hamilton Zoo) mentioned last week that Jaka – one of the zoo’s resident Sumatran Tigers – was going to have a full root canal procedure, and asked if I would be interested in photographing it, I jumped at the chance.
It was the keepers at Hamilton Zoo who first noticed that Jaka (which means ‘handsome boy’ in Indonesian), a 13-year-old tiger who has been at the zoo since he was 14 months old, had chipped his lower left canine tooth, and in doing so had exposed the root canal. Mike Goold, the zoo vet, knew that the tooth had to be repaired – but that was easier said than done.
Russell Tucker working on Jaka’s tooth while Kirsty Anderson supports his jaw.
Jaka’s canines are approximately 180mm long, two-thirds of which penetrate into the jaw bone. If the tooth was not repaired, there was a high risk of infection and an abscess forming in the tooth’s root. Mike contacted Russell Tucker from Auckland, a specialist in the field of animal dentistry, who had previously worked on chimpanzees and African wild dogs at the zoo.
When I arrived on the Tuesday morning (19th Feb 2013) Jaka had already been anaesthetised and was lying on the operating table in the zoo’s clinic. It was an amazing feeling, as I walked into the room, to see such an impressive animal lying there right in front of me. Once I had picked my jaw up from the floor, I had the pleasure of spending the next 3 – 4 hours watching and photographing this magnificent creature, while Russell and his team, made up of Kirsty Anderson and Cathy Pickering, worked on his tooth. While Russell was focused on Jaka’s damaged tooth, Mike and Kylie Martin (keeper/veterinary nurse) monitored Jaka, ensuring he remained in a comfortable and stable condition.
2 holes are made in the canine, then using needle-like files, Russell starts the process of removing the necrotic tissue.
The only way to check on the progress of the operation is to use X-rays. This ensures that all the dying tissue is removed, and that the veterinary dentist has got to the root of the problem (no pun intended).
One final check to see if the rest of Jaka’s teeth are okay, before flushing out the tooth.
A set of tubes are used to help irrigate the tooth, flushing out any debris left behind. The canal has to be completely cleaned out before the tooth can be filled.
Because Jaka is anaesthetised, it was important the the veterinary nurse Kylie Martin closely monitored the tiger’s condition. It also gave her the opportunity to carry out other tasks, like applying skin cream to his cracked paws. Not recommended when he’s awake!
With the tooth all cleaned out, the root canal can now be filled. After injecting dental cement into the hole, Russell then feeds in gutta-percha. This is an inert latex material used to fill-up the root canal of the tooth. You can see the ends of it protruding from the tooth, looking like orange wire.
Back to the X-ray machine to check that the root canal has been properly filled.
Once the X-ray confirms the tooth has been filled, a hot scalpel is used to trim the protruding gutta-percha.
A fine drill is then used to finish up.
The compounds used to fill the tooth are then set using ultra-violet light.
A final coat, of what looks like resin, seals and finishes off the job.
Russell’s job is done, and he takes a couple of moments to relax and stoke this magnificent animal – something only a very few people get to do.
Russell Tucker may have finished his job, but now it’s Mike Goold, the zoo vet, that takes charge again and organizes the zoo keepers so they can get Jaka back to his enclosure. The large tiger is stretchered out of the operating room to a waiting van, and is then driven to his enclosure at the other end of the zoo.
The final part of Jaka’s journey, as he is carried down the last few steps to the tiger’s enclosure.
Back home safe and sound. The breathing tubes are left in the tiger’s airway until he shows the first signs of coming round from the anesthetic.
It’s a long wait, but Mike and Kylie are close-by as Jaka takes his time waking up. Even so, it’s important to remember Jaka is a very dangerous animal and precautions need to be taken – hence the keeper in the hi-viz jacket standing by.
Time for everyone to leave Jake alone as he wakes from his ordeal with the tiger dentist.
It was truly an amazing experience being able to witness and photograph this procedure, so a big thank you to Hamilton Zoo, Ken, Mike, Russell, Kylie, Kirsty, Cathy and everyone involved, not forgetting Jaka, the star of the show. In case you’re wondering, yes, I did get to have a quick stroke of Jaka – probably the only time I will ever get to touch one of these magnificent creatures.
If you would like to see more of Jaka and other great animals why not visit Hamilton Zoo, you may even want to join the Hamilton Zoo Photography Group. (Note: This has now become The PhotoHub.)