Root canal, eye work for zoo’s polar bear

TACOMA — The 922-pound polar bear lay on his side atop a padded table Saturday, completely still except for the steady rise and fall of his chest and an occasional twitch of his nose.

More than a dozen medical experts bustled around him, each with a specific task to carry out while Boris slumbered beneath anesthesia.

One performed a root canal on an infected, bear-sized canine tooth. One removed a mass from Boris’ right eye that had been causing him to tear up. Others trimmed his overgrown toenails, rubbed ointment on a small cut and monitored his vital stats.

Cindy Roberts, an animal keeper at Point Defiance Zoo & Aquarium, stood to the side and watched with the look of a concerned mother.

“All of us worry about him and love him,” she said. “We spend more time with the animals than we do with our own families.”

A veterinarian went to the Arctic Tundra exhibit about 8 a.m. Saturday and shot a tranquilizer dart at Boris to put him to sleep. He then was given a sedative and about 12 strong workers loaded him into a webbed net, onto a stretcher and into a van that carried him to the hospital.

The bear was carefully placed on the table, put on a ventilator and then the doctors began their pro bono work.

Polar bears, because they’re such massive creatures, usually undergo bi-annual physical exams but this is the second consecutive year for Boris because his keepers noticed issues with his eye and teeth.

Dr. Edmund Kwan, an endodontist from Tukwila, Wash., has worked on the polar bears’ teeth for years.

“It’s very similar to doing a human’s tooth, it’s just we don’t have instruments made for teeth as big as that,” he said after adding a silver filling to Boris’ right canine. The canine is about 3.5 inches long.

Kwan said he had to dig 100 millimeters deep in the bear’s tooth, compared to the normal 30 millimeters or so for a person’s tooth.

All in all, there was nothing to worry about with the four-hour procedure. Boris, the oldest of the zoo’s three bears at 27, was returned safely to his bear buddies at the end of the physical examination.

Except for arthritis and ongoing teeth issues, he got a clean bill of health.

“For an old man, he looks great,” zoo veterinarian Karen Wolf said.