Zabu Tiger Nearly Drowns

Zabu Tiger Nearly Drowns

Doing one dental procedure in a month is a nail biter for us. Doing 6 in two days was going to push us to the limits of what we thought possible, but nothing prepared us for how things can go sideways in an instant.

The Peter Emily International Veterinary Dental Foundation is world famous for their charitable work; fixing big cat teeth. In addition to volunteering their services, they bring vets who are training to learn from them and a slew of techs and their PR person.

We asked them to come help us address lingering dental issues for the tigers: Seth, Zabu, Gabrielle, Priya & Amanda and our cougar, Sassy. Dr. Gingerich came up from The Pet Dental Center in Bonita Springs to observe and help. Our own vets, Dr. Justin Boorstein and Dr. Liz Wynn, of the Ehrlich Animal Hospital came as well, and Dr. Justin invited a vet from his practice, at the Humane Society of Tampa Bay, Dr. Christine Glenn.

The way the PEIVDF vets work is in pairs or trios, all working in the cat’s mouth at the same time. All of the sedation and handling of the cats is done by the sanctuary and their own vets. This is how they can complete so many procedures in such a short period of time. Day 1 Saturday Oct. 7 was pretty amazing!

We had been preparing for this weekend for a year and there were two huge hurdles. First was that we only had one working tiger transport cage and the other was that we only had one anesthesia machine and it was designed for dogs and cats; not tigers. Through fundraisers and pleas for help with our wish list items we had managed to secure donors for 3 new transport cages and a tiger sized anesthesia machine w/ ventilator. (Huge shout out the Roselle and the MacLean families!)

Seth Tiger was up first and done by lunch time. He was put back in a transport wagon and rolled back to his cage to wake up. It’s usually several hours to a half a day for the cats to be stable enough to step down out of the transports without hurting themselves. Zabu Tiger was next and even though she had to have 3 root canals in three of her canines, they did her very quickly and efficiently. Because seeing her would cause Cameron to go crazy, we latched her transport to the hospital recovery cage for her to sleep it off over night. Last for the day was Sassy Cougar and by the time she was done it was 7:30 PM. We met the vet team for dinner but conversation was pretty low key as everyone was just physically exhausted.

Day 2 Sunday Oct. 8 we started at 7:30 moving cats back into their enclosures. Seth had been let out into his roofed section the night before, so he was now allowed to go out into his big yard with lake access. Zabu was returned to the roofed section of Vacation Rotation so she and Cameron could be reunited. Sassy Cougar seemed happy enough in her big fluffy hay bed in the recovery hospital, and volunteers were still revamping her home cage, so she stayed inside all day. Cameron was thrilled to have Zabu back, but wouldn’t let her move more than an inch or two from him all day. As the day wore on, Zabu became more and more annoyed with him being right on top of her all day.

Gabrielle Tiger was first to get her teeth done and she was the cat that had me most concerned. She’s tiny and at the age of 20 I was so nervous about sedating her for what could be a very long and difficult process with her teeth. All of the cats we had rescued last year from Colorado had mouths full of broken teeth. They had also arrived with some of the nastiest blood born diseases, which had made healing very difficult for Priya, after her emergency surgery to save her life. Charka’s death after surgery is still too fresh in our minds and on our hearts to feel comfortable sedating one of these tigers. Despite being a cat I worried about, she did great and woke up just fine in her transport on the porch of the Windsong Memorial Hospital.

Next was Priya and the vets started her right around lunch time. She had nearly died on arrival, due to that 20 lb hydormetra that we had to remove, and her inability to heal. The idea of sedating her again wasn’t something we felt comfortable with, but just like Gabrielle, she was not getting any younger. If we were going to address these broken teeth, it would be better to do it while she was in good health. Lurking in the back of my mind was the dread of dealing with Amanda Tiger. We had been saying all along that she would be last, just in case we ran out of time, because she had shown no signs of having trouble chewing, despite a notation on her chart that she had a tooth that needed to be looked at.

Priya’s dental work went so well that she was done by about 1:15 and was moved out next to Gabrielle to wake up. Rebecca and other keepers put fans on them and kept them in the shade. Priya woke up very well and Gabrielle took a little longer but did fine. So far, so good. Everyone got all of the dental work they needed and they had all awakened, without incident…and we had time for Amanda.

Amanda. Sometimes known as Dramanda, for good reason. She’s a mid size tiger but she keeps her brothers, Arthur and Andre, who are half again bigger than she is, in line. That’s no small feat because they are all about trouble. Her roar makes your blood run cold…after stopping briefly, because she is just so terrifying. All of the tigers at Big Cat Rescue would eventually kill you, just playing with you, if they ever got the chance. I’m pretty sure Amanda would kill you because she intended it. She has some keepers, like Rich, Gale, Afton and others that she shows some affection, but the rest of us just know to avert our gaze and walk softly in her presence.

Amanda had been tranquilized in her feeding lockout because no one wanted to take the chance that she’d go into her den and fall asleep. No one wanted that because NO ONE wanted to be the person who would have to stick their head in there to see if she was fully asleep yet. Sedation takes a while, even in a 21 year old cat like Amanda, if they have a strong will to fight. The first round of drugs wasn’t enough. A second dose was administered and we all stood around waiting. Since Zabu was sick of Cameron’s doting attention, and it had been more than 24 hours since her dental, we decided to let them both out into the Vacation Rotation enclosure. She had been walking around all day and seemed fine to go out.

Afton walked along the road next to Vacation Rotation and watched Zabu skillfully avoid Cameron by backing into the pond. I don’t know what it is with tigers, but they often will back into the water. Cameron wasn’t going anywhere near the water so Zabu had a bit of peace from him and seemed quite content laying in the shallows with the mist from the fountain spray cooling her off. Afton walked back to where Amanda was finally asleep enough that Jamie and Kathryn could disassemble her feeding lockout. I filmed for Facebook LIVE as volunteers loaded Amanda onto the carry tarp and then loaded her into the transport. Jamie started driving the golf cart, pulling the sleeping Amanda in her transport, up to the cat hospital. Afton decided to go check on Zabu one more time before joining everyone.

It was about 1:50 PM and Afton couldn’t see Zabu anywhere, and what’s worse, she couldn’t hear her. Zabu is quite the clown in the water and splashes around like crazy. All was quiet in the pond and Afton couldn’t see down over the bank from where she was. She quickened her step as the voice in her head was screaming that something just wasn’t right. By now she was in full run to get to the end gate where she could see down over the bank. What she saw stopped her dead in her tracks: Zabu was upside down in the pond, completely submerged, except for her paws that were rigidly reaching, motionless, for the sky.

Afton screamed for Zabu and then radioed for help, “Vacation Rotation IMMEDIATELY!!!” Everyone heard the panic in her voice and all but Jamie ran to the scene. Jamie was driving Amanda to the hospital and had to get her there before she woke up so she could be intubated for her dental.

On the video you can hear us all calling to Zabu trying to help orient her toward the shore. Everyone was banging on the cage and calling frantically to her. Zabu would come up for air, but with each stroke of her paw, she would roll completely over in the water. Several times she was under water for over a minute. Just when we thought for sure she was dead, she’d manage to heave herself over again, sometimes coming up with a mouth full of grasses from the pond floor. Cameron wasn’t about to leave her side and was between the pond and the cage wall where volunteers were tearfully calling out to Zabu.

In the video you can hear the calling going on for 9 minutes, but by that time I had headed up to the Emergency Response shed to get a catch noose. There was no way I could reach her with it from outside the cage and no way Cameron was going to let anyone come near her inside the cage, but as I drove my golf cart, as fast as I could across property, I reckoned that I’d figure something out by the time I got there. A text came in from Chris at explore asking me to clean off Nikita’s webcam, so I replied to his text asking him to turn off the Vacation Rotation webcam. Watching a tiger drowning was an scene that will replay in my head forever and I didn’t want our viewers to suffer the same insomnia that those of us watching were going to experience. That’s why the camera went to highlights at 9 minutes in. Apparently there had been no one at the wheel, so they had not captured any of the horrific images, during the 9 minutes.

Meanwhile Jamie called me and asked me to take over with Amanda because, by now, she’d been alerted to the situation. Dr. Boorstein and Dr. Gingerich had arrived on the scene with drugs to sedate Cameron so we could get in to Zabu. They had run across the sanctuary, through the swamp to get there. I can’t even imagine the dilemma they faced: If they sedated Cameron, would he too flop over into the pond and drown? They were both sure that Zabu was a goner, based on how long she was staying under and how weak she was getting.

Zabu was only a few feet from the edge of the pond, but she was really disoriented, so each time she would surface, she was paddling further out into the middle, instead of back to the shore. At times it looked like she could just stand up and have her head above water, so I think she must have been having some kind of a seizure. This wasn’t a matter of being woozy from sedation the day before.

9 minutes of terror for Zabu and the volunteers who love her before the camera was shut off. We had to sedate Cameron Lion to get to her and she walked out of the pond on her own.

When I arrived at the Cat Hospital Dr. Glenn had stuck kitten stomach feeding tubes up Amanda’s nostrils to deliver anesthesia to her, but no one was sure it was enough to keep her asleep. The PEIVDF team told me that Dr. Boorstein had told them not to intubate her yet. (That was before all heck had broken loose in the outback) I told them Dr. Boorstein was a little busy at the time with a drowning tiger and that we had to get Amanda on the table and intubated. They said they don’t DO the intubation.

I was dumbstruck. Well, WHO was going to do it? I started replaying in my head what I’ve seen them do and was starting to look around the room for the tools. There was a young blonde woman, who I thought was a tech, that said she could intubate a cat. I figured a vet tech probably had a lot more experience with that sort of thing, since I’ve NEVER done it. We asked how she wanted Amanda positioned.

Dr. Boorstein always intubates the cats on their backs. She wanted the cat sternal, so we lowered the table and one of the PEIVDF team members hopped on Amanda’s back to hold her head upright as everyone struggled to move her from her side to a sternal (Sphinx like) pose. I was in charge of Amanda’s face and was holding her chin down and one side of her massive upper jaw up as Dr. Glenn inserted the guide and then the tube. Any second I was expecting Amanda’s unfocused eyes, to roll back into focus on my face. She didn’t…except in my dreams now.

Once intubated, Amanda was fighting the ventilator. She was NOT going to have a machine decide when she would take a deep breath, so it was making some weird noises. I called Dr. Boorstein to let him know what was going on. Only then did I learn that the young blonde was a vet and not a tech. FL doesn’t require a license to be a tech, so I was thinking this person probably had no idea what they were doing, but thankfully, I was wrong.

Meanwhile, Jamie had called Victor to come in and they loaded up the Toyota Tundra with ropes and poles and headed back across the property to the Vacation Rotation. Kathryn was driving and volunteers opened up the outside drive thru gate and then locked it up behind the truck. Jamie, Kathryn and Victor unlatched the interior drive thru gate, but now what? If they swung the gates open, Cameron could have still come at a full run toward them. He had just been darted but there was no sign of him getting sleepy yet.

They decided to use the force of the truck to push the gates open and sped across the field toward Cameron and Zabu. Cameron must have decided that in the face of an oncoming truck, he’d protect Zabu by getting in the water between her and the truck, so Kathryn had the presence of mind to start frantically blowing the horn at him. He retreated from the pond bank, and laid down in the shade, as the drugs were starting to kick in.

Jamie and Victor were in the back of the Tundra, but it has a topper on it so they couldn’t see Zabu until they were right up on her. As they were getting ready to throw a rope over her, to pull her to shore, they were absolutely astonished to see Zabu sitting on the edge of the lake acting perfectly normal! Zabu started walking back, along the cage wall, toward the roofed section so Kathryn used the truck to herd her back into that area where the keepers were able to shut the guillotine door between Zabu and the pond.

Years ago, when we neutered Cameron and his mane fell out, we had discovered and removed a cancer that would have gone undetected in that massive mane. We had recently noticed a mass on his ear, and wanted to biopsy it, but really didn’t want to risk sedating the 17 year old lion, since his ear is a long way from his heart. Now that he was blissfully sleeping, it seemed like the perfect time to go ahead and pull in our last transport wagon, to carry him to our West Boensche Recovery Hospital for that biopsy.

Amanda’s lower canines were cracked and required root canals. She did great during surgery other than spiking a fever. We used cold water soaked towels, a fan and bottles of cold water between her limbs to keep the temperature down. It never exceeded 104 so it wasn’t life threatening; just something we haven’t experienced before. Then, after her reversal, during the waking up phase she crashed. Her blood pressure plummeted and her nose and tongue went blue. The intubation tube had already been removed, but she was awake enough that they couldn’t put it back in.

From outside the transport cage the vets fed the feeding tubes back up her nose to increase her oxygen supply. Keepers scratched Amanda with backscratchers and messed with her feet and tail to try and arouse her. Amanda had three episodes that looked like a heart attack to me. The vets didn’t say what it was, but did say they were really worried about where it was heading. Each time Amanda would lift her head, feet and tail at wild angles into the air and just seemed to freeze in that position with eyes staring blankly ahead. Her breaths were shallow and we were all getting oxygen deprived as we adopted her struggling breathing pattern.

Her fourth such episode was different. This time it was like Amanda jumping in and retaking control. This time it was with eyes focused on her surroundings and with the full intent of killing us all if we didn’t back away. Her color was back and her heart rate had returned to normal. We were so happy to see her back! She seemed to enjoy Chelsea singing to her, so we all backed away and let her enjoy the lullaby.

The day wasn’t over yet though. It was almost dark by the time Sassy Cougar was returned to her enclosure. We rolled Cameron, out to the side of his home cage, to sleep off the anesthesia in there over night. Amanda was sitting up and roaring at us, so we rolled her back to the side of her cage too. We wouldn’t let them out of the transports until the following morning though, so that they didn’t hurt themselves.

We had to get Zabu back to her home enclosure from the roofed area of Vacation Rotation. We couldn’t use the tunnel system because we couldn’t risk her going right back to the pond. We didn’t think she’d get in the transport wagon again so soon, but in some ways her mental challenges are a blessing. She hopped right in, so we were able to return her home.

The next morning we let Amanda and Cameron back into their enclosures and everyone is doing fine. Zabu will be on antibiotics to make sure she doesn’t catch pneumonia and we will be watching her closely to see if she has any further seizures. Deep sigh. It’s been a very tense few days, but we’ve all survived it and the cats won’t be having any dental issues, so all is good in our world.

Thank you everyone who made sure our cats got the vet care they needed!

While the cats were getting their COHATs (Comprehensive Oral Heath Assessment and Treatment) volunteers were busy handling tours, gift shop sales and were getting the cats’ cages ready for their return.

Getting a cage ready means

  • Clearing off all of the debris that falls from the trees. A lot fell during Hurricane Irma.
  • Clearing off the Spanish moss from the roof and sides.
  • Checking all of the trees to make sure there aren’t any gaps around them, but that the cage isn’t cutting into the tree either.
  • Scraping off any surface rust and touching up, or fully painting.
  • Mowing. Weed whacking.
  • Pulling up burr plants so they won’t come back.
  • Cleaning out the cobwebs in their dens and taking out any stashes they may have.
  • Repairing broken concrete lathe.
  • Checking platforms for splinters or nails.


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