Put your hands in the mouths of enough bears and tigers and you learn a few things. Like, if the tongue starts to move?
It’s time for more anesthetic. Now.
Also, says Ben Colmery III, if you should ever find yourself in Botswana being chased by a pack of African wild dogs, “give it up. You’re done.”
And similarly, when gazing at the approaching fangs of a wolf, try to savor the moment. “To see the architecture of their mouths,” he says, “is spectacular.”
Colmery, 61, is the man to see if there’s a dental dilemma with your dachshund. He’s also the pro the Detroit Zoo calls in — as it did two weeks ago — when there’s a problem with a polar bear.
Talini, the zoo’s prized 2-year-old cub, had a broken lower right quadrant mandibular canine, also known as the 4-inch-long fang on the starboard side of her lower jaw. She might have bashed it against a piece of the exhibit, surmises chief zoo veterinarian Ann Duncan, or even against another bear.
The point was, it no longer had one. It was open, infected and ugly, crying for a root canal. While Duncan will sometimes handle extractions on smaller animals, she has a policy for more complex procedures and larger mouths:
“If it’s a great, big tooth, he’s the guy.”
So in came Colmery from his practice in Dixboro, a hamlet northwest of Ann Arbor in Superior Township. Out came his polar bear surgical kit, some of it purchased from human dental supply companies and some of it from Home Depot.
Out came the infected tissue, in went the sealant, off went a newly refreshed 420-pound bear. Another happy customer, and a happy veterinary dentist.
After 35 years as a vet, and after helping invent his specialty, he’ll tell you there’s nothing like a chimpanzee, aardvark or lion to “break up the monotony.”
Captivated by animals
On Friday, Colmery has the tongue of a middle-aged Cairn terrier wrapped around his thumb.
The dog is a referral to Dixboro from another practice, where a tooth fell out when it bit a vet. There’s a breathing tube down its throat and swelling where the tooth used to be.
Probably not cancer, Colmery says, and the owner doesn’t want to deal with surgery, at fees ranging from $1,000 up to $3,000 for major reconstruction. The X-rays look good, medically; aesthetically, when he splashes them across his computer screen in DayGlo colors, they look like a Peter Max.
It’s a relatively simply case — diagnose, clean, stitch. Colmery talks while he works. He’s friendly, funny and low on ceremony; the type of doctor whose assistants call him by his first name, and he’s dressed in khakis, tennis shoes and a golf shirt.
Ben Jr. was a naval aviator, he says, and they lived all over the world. Colmery III was born in Battle Creek, but he was in Southern California when his sixth-grade teacher gave him a horse.
“It sort of annoyed my dad,” he concedes, “but from that point on, I was fascinated with what makes animals tick.”
A pioneer is born
Some years later, fresh from Michigan State University, he called every vet in the Ann Arbor phone book looking for work. The last one hired him and he’s been in Michigan since, except for three years in New York that ended because he couldn’t stand the early sunsets.
He didn’t set out to become a pioneer in animal dentistry, but it struck him early on that he didn’t know much of anything about fixing teeth. “I went back and checked,” he says. “I was even awake during that lecture. I had half a page of notes.”
Fortunately, the University of Michigan has a dental school, and he started spending long hours in its library. Also, fortunately, most of the research he read about had been done on beagles.
In 1975, he and a handful of associates from across the country founded the American Veterinary Dental Society. With Colmery and Thomas Kavanagh of Farmington, Michigan has two of fewer than 100 certified animal dental surgeons in the world.
That’s not to say other vets can’t be trusted with what sits beneath the nose cone of a collie or a cat. But the big jobs — and the big animals — tend to come his way. Or, he goes to them.
Eight or 10 years ago, Louisiana State University flew him in to perform a root canal on its mascot, a tiger named Mike. It was a simple procedure, he says — and it turned out the only potential danger was to the medical team.
The tiger is so revered that a university dean warned them, “If anything happens to Mike, get in your car and start driving and don’t look back.”
Times have changed
Conditions have improved in the two decades since the Detroit Zoo first invited Colmery and his tool kit to help. Early on, he says, zookeepers would drug a bear in its holding area, behind the exhibit, and once the bear flopped to the concrete, Colmery would squat down and get to work.
Those were the days when he’d see a tongue start to flutter, and so would his heart: “Um, perhaps a little more juice would be in order.”
Now the zoo has a spotless infirmary with monitors, high-tech equipment and an experienced anesthesiologist — chief veterinarian Duncan, who points out that “when we do all these procedures, I intubate the animals by sticking my hand down their throat.”
She has more to lose, in other words, than he does, and you don’t trust your jaguars and your arctic foxes to just anyone. “He’s one of the very best,” Duncan says. “He can do anything we need him to.”
Yes, he can, Colmery says — within one very firm limit. Otters are fine. Gorillas, too. Anything, really, without hooves. Except
“Would I ever want to work on a person?” he asks. “Heavens. It grosses me out to think about it.”
Reach Neal Rubin at (313) 222-1874 or email@example.com.
Detroit Zoo by the numbers
Ben Colmery III has done a root canal this year on 100 percent of the polar bear cubs at the Detroit Zoo — which is to say, one. Looking back on 2006, the Detroit Zoological Society has compiled some far loftier numbers, ranging into seven figures, starting with
1: Number of newborns named for a Detroit Tiger — a male Macaroni penguin who goes by Pudge. Catcher Ivan Rodriguez’s nickname was the easy winner among five finalists in an online vote.
1,001,737: People visiting the zoo, marking the ninth time in 10 years attendance has topped 1 million.
6,214,000: Crickets fed to the amphibians at the zoo’s National Amphibian Conservation Center, described by the Wall Street Journal as “Disneyland for toads.”
182,000: Fish fed to the penguins, who were always dressed for dinner.
14,262: Butterflies who burst free from their chrysalises in the Butterfly Garden, having already been flown to Michigan from Costa Rica and El Salvador.
8,338: Blood samples drawn by zoo veterinarians from 2,307 animals, prompting in turn 1,634 prescriptions.
355: Births, hatchings and metamorphoses, including three mammals, 13 reptiles, 54 salamanders, 275 frogs, nine relatively anonymous birds — and one Pudge.
Neal Rubin / The Detroit News
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