An Elephant Goes to the Dentist…

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What might sound like the opening of a joke, “An elephant goes to the dentist,” was serious business last week at the San Diego Zoo. Jewel, an Asian elephant, had a lower molar that wasn’t wearing properly and was hindering her eating.

So, to remedy this, and to get her back to eating properly, the San Diego Zoo brought a dentist to her. Well, actually, we brought in an entire team. See video

There were more than 30 people—made up of the elephant keepers, veterinarians, vets techs, and dental experts—who took part in the procedure. It took months of planning, dozens of meetings, and a full dress rehearsal the day before the procedure to make sure all went smoothly.

For an outsider, this was amazing to watch. I knew many of the people who had come together for this procedure, but rarely did I see so many of them in the same place at the same time. And then there were the people I didn’t know.

Dave Fagan, D.D.S., from The Colyer Institute, was the primary dentist on this procedure. He was also kind enough to give me a crash course on elephant teeth and how their diet plays a significant role in their dental heath, how their diets have changed over time, and that the teeth of Asian elephants wear a bit differently than those of African elephants.

Before I met Dr. Fagan, about all I really knew about elephant teeth was that each elephant goes through six sets of teeth in its lifetime. When an elephant works through its sixth set of teeth, it has pretty much reached the end of its life.

So, as I sat with Dr. Fagan on Tuesday morning, waiting for Jewel’s anesthetic to take effect, this is what I learned – put in my own layman terms:

Elephant teeth don’t fall out like human teeth, and they’re not shaped anything like any other teeth I’ve ever seen. Elephant teeth are long; they almost run the length of the elephant’s jaw. And they have well-defined sections within each tooth. The best way I can describe it: like the sections within an orange slice or a comb you’d use to brush your hair. All of these little sections are joined at the bottom. It’s one long tooth, about the length of a loaf of pre-sliced bread, with “perforations.”

Now, the story continues with how elephants use these teeth. Elephants grind their food. They place food between their upper and lower molars and grind on it in a circular motion. And when elephants grab their food, they also get a fair amount of sand in their mouths. And remember, their food includes large branches of trees. As they grind up branches, leaves, and some dirt and sand, over time the grinding motion and the tough nature of the food wears down the teeth and moves the teeth forward and a bit up from the gums. In theory, when the tooth is pushed forward and up by the elephant’s regular grinding of food, the small, perforated sections of the teeth break off, making room for the rest of the tooth and ultimately the next molar.

But this grinding and wearing down of the molar wasn’t happening with Jewel. Her bottom right molar had been pushed up and forward, but the section that was protruding hadn’t broken off. Instead, she had an up-slope at the front of her tooth. Rather than putting the food between the molars and grinding in a circular motion, she’d been limited to a small forward and backward motion, hindered by the “hook” of the bottom molar.

About this time, my lesson ended because the anesthetic had kicked in and the team was ready to start the procedure. As I watched from the viewing area, the mattress team was called in. Mattress team? Never knew we had a mattress team!

But that mattress team played a vital role in Jewel’s comfort. Staff laid down several mattresses and guided Jewel onto the padding for her dental checkup. Once she was down on her right side, animal care staff placed inner tubes between her legs to keep her legs spaced and to make sure that her joints weren’t under pressure.

Every person in the Zoo’s Conrad Prebys Elephant Care Center that morning knew their role, and it all appeared to be executed flawlessly. The 30 people moved around the room like a well-rehearsed dance troupe.

Bales of hay were brought in and covered with clean towels to serve as tables for the doctors and vets. All of the tools were laid out, and cameras were quickly put into position to help see inside Jewel’s mouth.

Elephants have surprisingly small mouths. The way it was explained to me was that the dental team would only be able to open her mouth several inches. The team would be trying to work in a space about the size of the trash can at my desk, 18 inches (45 centimeters) or so. Big animal, small mouth.

While the dentist and vets were working in her mouth, the other 25 or so people in the elephant care center were taking advantage of the opportunity to complete other procedures on Jewel. While she was under the anesthetic, veterinarians completed a rectal ultrasound (no abnormalities noted), some basic foot care (trimmed her foot pads, cuticles and nails), and administered her rabies and tetanus shots. Animal care staff also took a blood and urine sample for analysis.

The entire procedure was beautifully choreographed with everyone working together to make it a success. The dental procedure and the secondary procedures took about two hours. The “hook” from the molar was removed.

I wasn’t there when Jewel woke up from the procedure but was told that once she was standing again, she took her trunk and felt inside her mouth, checking out the work. I found this endearing, because I think that we humans do the same thing: our tongues go to that space in our mouths when we lose a tooth as a child.

Throughout the whole procedure, the one emotion I felt most strongly was pride. I was proud that the San Diego Zoo had been asked to take care of this elephant by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). I am proud that we have the staff and resources that could complete such a critical procedure for Jewel. And proud that I work for an organization that has so much community support and believes in making the lives of elephants better.

Jenny Mehlow is a public relations representative for the San Diego Zoo.

Update: The Zoo’s elephants are scheduled to have a Snow Day on Wednesday, December 16. We hope you can come and watch the fun!