Exotic cats get dental help from volunteers, students

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BLOOMINGTON, Ind. (AP) — Many people harbor anxieties, large and small, about dental appointments. There's the stuffy waiting room, the hiss of laughing gas filtering through surgical tubes and that horrid screeching of drills on teeth. And, in a more unusual setting, there are the chuffing snores of two full-grown tigers.

Joe Taft looks after more than 215 exotic felines as chief operator of the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Center Point. The cats are refugees, resilient victims of abuse and neglect with bright orange coats and big white teeth — teeth that are often broken or infected from mistreatment at the hands of former owners.

Recently, a group of 13 volunteers with the Peter Emily International Veterinary Dental Foundation and students from the University of Illinois crowded into Taft's garage, which serves as the feline center's medical facilities. Inside lay two unconscious tigers, Vaughn and Magic, their tongues lolling out of their mouths and unseeing eyes staring into the distance. Quickly, human and veterinary dentists descended upon fractured teeth, performing root canals and procedural cleaning. At times, there were three sets of hands between four-inch fangs.

"There are people who, if they could, would do this every weekend," said Emily Hall, media coordinator for the foundation. "If my husband could close his practice and do this, he would."

The foundation works in zoos and refuges internationally to improve the dental health of animals up and down the food chain, from bears to elephants to snakes to shrews. Anesthesia students, those looking to earn a board certification, interns and volunteers all crowd into rooms and daringly step into cages around the world as a part of this nonprofit organization. Most even pay for the expenses involved out of pocket.

Board-certified veterinary dentist Dr. Barron Hall, Emily Hall's husband and a team leader for the mission, is easygoing and comfortable as he sticks his face between Vaughn's jaws.

"We'll let you know when he wakes up," said Barron Hall as he addressed Vaughn's root fractures.

"You let me know," said Taft, laughing and eating a sandwich. "I'll be outside."

The volunteers started their pro bono work at 10 a.m., hoping to treat the four tigers, two jaguars and a serval scheduled for their two-day visit. Emily Hall explained that volunteers would work another eight hours if the next cat needed it, and they'd continue to work until the job was done.

"All of us know what it's like to have a toothache," said Taft. "And some of these guys have had toothaches for years. They provide a service for these animals that we could literally not provide, and that puts us in a tough spot. Our job here is to provide animals a good home and a good life."

It was the seventh mission the foundation has held at the center, offering founder Dr. Peter Emily's more than 40 years of experience in both human and veterinary dentistry services. Without the foundation's assistance, dental maintenance would have cost the center "tens of thousands of dollars and weeks of time," Taft said. The money saved will now go toward other veterinary care services, cage construction and maintenance, food and utilities.

"They used to say if a tooth gives you a problem, you can just take it out," Emily said.

"I would cry if I had to take out that tooth," said Clarence Sitzman, the veterinary dentist filing Magic's protruding tooth. "He would cry, too."

Animal dentistry is a relatively new discipline, so new that Emily has constructed tools to accommodate his wild patients. Barron Hall once baked concrete in his family's oven to bring with him to Colombia as a filler for an elephant tusk root canal.

Considered the "Godfather" of veterinary dentistry, Emily has worked on the animals of Siegfried and Roy and the Denver Zoo's toucans, as well as grizzlies, orangutans and his favorite cat — the jaguar. Now 82, he still takes an active role in the procedures and globe-trots to Namibia, Peru or rescue centers within the United States that have "a perpetual need."

"It's hard to get people to think about dentistry for animals," Emily said. He recounts a lecture that he gave at a country club in his home state of Colorado where the donations only totaled about $100.

"It's hard for them to make a connection, but the primary function of everything alive, every creature from bacteria to elephants, is to move and eat," Emily said. "If the teeth are infected in any species, you can end up with cardiovascular disease and autoimmune disorders. Pain and suffering runs rampant, but the cats are stoic and don't show it."

In recent years, the feline center has been cited for insufficient security measures and fined nearly $73,000 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for practices "likely to cause death or serious physical harm to employees." As a result, the not-for-profit organization with an annual budget of $700,000 has experienced economic constraints and backlash from negative media exposure.

Taft looked around at the crowded room of volunteers and students, considering his slow-breathing cats as they underwent dental surgery to alleviate their suffering.

"I just hope that this will shine a more realistic light on the work we do here," he said.


Source: The Herald-Times, http://bit.ly/1QYcemc


Information from: The Herald Times, http://www.heraldtimesonline.com

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