ANNE T. DENOGEAN
Tucson urologist Sheldon Marks had a lion of a patient earlier this month. No, really, the doctor had a lion for a patient.
On Dec. 1, Marks and three veterinarians performed a vasectomy on the younger of Reid Park Zoo’s two lions, Kitabu. What seems at first glance to be a quirky little story turns out to be part of the zoo’s plan to slowly change over to a breeding population of lions and raise some lion cubs.
Until recently, the zoo had three lions: Kitabu and his parents, M’Bali and A-Tatu. A-Tatu, the female, had to be euthanized in October because of failing health. The upside of her sad passing is that the zoo has an opportunity to replace her with a young lioness suitable for breeding.
General curator Scott Barton said the zoo is expecting a female from the San Diego Wild Animal Park this spring.
But he doesn’t want her impregnated by Kitabu or M’Bali (nicknamed Bali). Breeding programs are cooperatively managed by the nation’s accredited zoos for genetic and conservation purposes. The breeding program wants lions with known lineages, tracing back to forefathers caught in the wild, Barton said.
“Our animals came from European zoos, so it’s tough to trace exactly their lineages . . . There’s nothing wrong as far as disease or anything else with these guys, just that their genetics can’t be traced back so that we know all of their histories,” Barton said.
Both Kitabu and Bali are in good health but at ages of 16 and 21, respectively, these elderly gents are at or near life expectancy. Lions live about 15 years in the wild and 20 in captivity. After Kitabu and Bali pass over to that great savannah in the sky, the Reid Park Zoo will bring in a young male to mate with the new female.
The zoo plans to keep the lioness separate from Bali, which is why he didn’t require a vasectomy, Barton said. And, in case you were wondering, neutering either lion like you would a dog wasn’t an option.
“If you actually neuter something like a lion, they will often lose a good portion of their mane and some of their male characteristics. We want them to still look like a male and act like a male, we just don’t want them to be reproductive,” Barton said.
The zoo has raised cubs before, including Kitabu, born here in 1992, but it has been at least a dozen years since cubs were born at the Tucson zoo, Barton said.
Marks is renowned for his expertise in vasectomy reversal in humans. And he and his wife are avid zoo supporters. She is president-elect of the Tucson Zoological Society and he serves on the president’s council.
The zoo asked Marks to participate in the surgery because of his expertise, but also because the procedure would be interesting for him, Barton said.
“It was one of the greatest honors that they would want me to do that; to do something so unique and special,” Marks said. “It was probably one of the highlights of my life.”
There isn’t a lot of information available on lion vasectomies, which are rarely performed, but the procedure wasn’t difficult, said Marks, who operated with veterinarians James Stofft, Alexis Moreno, and Sharon Stone
“The lion anatomy is surprisingly similar to human anatomy, except covered in a thick, heavy skin and then everything is covered in a thick, dense fur,” Marks said. “Once you’re in, it’s the same as a human vasectomy. It’s just the challenge of getting to where you got to be.”
To prepare Kitabu, staff tranquilized the 363-pound lion using a dart and moved him to the zoo hospital.
“Once the lion was anesthetized and resting comfortably, we did exactly like we do humans, which was we put on numbing medicine, made a tiny incision, went down and cut out the Vas, sewed it up, made it really pretty,” Marks said.
The Vas deferens are tubes that carry sperm from the testes to the urethra. About a half-inch is cut out in a vasectomy. Marks said it took 45 minutes, compared to the 15 minutes it takes to perform the procedure on a human.
Because it’s quite a task to immobilize a lion, the veterinarians also took the opportunity to clean the lion’s teeth and give him a complete physical with blood work, Barton said.
Kitabu has recovered nicely, with no complications. Other residents of Reid Park Zoo who have had vasectomies include a gibbon, a lion-tailed macaque, and two mandrills, Barton said.
I should acknowledge that this story came to my attention through pictures of the procedure posted on the Web site of Arizona radio personalities Johnjay and Rich. Marks, a friend of Johnjay Van Es, joked that the lion was a much better patient than Van Es, who has publicly waffled about having a vasectomy.
“The lion doesn’t complain, doesn’t whine. When the lion called to make the appointment for the vasectomy, he actually showed up the day he said he would,” Marks said.
Anne T. Denogean can be reached at 573-4582 and firstname.lastname@example.org. Address letters to P.O. Box 26767, Tucson, AZ 85726-6767. Her columns run Tuesdays and Fridays.
Learn more about big cats and Big Cat Rescue at https://bigcatrescue.org