April 2008

Not your average patient: Shannon Griffin, D96, works on Aslan, an African lion at the Oklahoma City Zoo. Photo: Drew Harmon/The Edmond Sun

A Royal Pain

The king of the jungle meets his hero-a dentist

By Jacqueline Mitchell

What do you do when a 400-pound lion has a toothache? This is not a riddle-it's the question Oklahoma City Zoo officials faced when an 11-year-old African lion showed signs of discomfort. Aslan, a male lion taking part in a captive-breeding program, hadn't been paying much attention to his two female companions. When zoo veterinarians noticed the lion's breath was less than minty fresh, they called Shannon Griffin, D96, for help.

Griffin, co-owner of Griffin and Reed Cosmetic Dentistry in Edmond, Okla., already counted several zoo staffers-all of the human variety-among her patients, and she had worked with horses and police dogs at the Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine during her days at Tufts. Still, she found the prospect of working on her newest patient "a little bit nerve-wracking."

First she ordered a lion's skull from a biology supply company to study the unique dentition of Panthera leo. "Their canines are three inches long. But once I was actually looking at teeth and gums, I went right into dental mode," she says.

Griffin made her house call to the zoo last summer. After a team of zoo veterinarians and vet techs sedated Aslan, Griffin's dental examination revealed the source of the big cat's woes: he had a three-inch piece of bone lodged in his soft palate. (Lions normally eat their prey whole, including the bones.) Griffin removed the splintered bone, cleaned the lion's teeth and capped a fractured canine. The whole procedure took less than two hours.

Aslan is not Griffin's only oversized patient residing at the Oklahoma City Zoo. She also gave a 400-pound male silverback gorilla a routine dental examination. Like Aslan, the silverback had been sedated by the zoo's veterinarians. "The gorillas are fantastic," says Griffin, who is now the on-call dentist for the zoo, in addition to her duties at her private practice. "Their teeth are the same as ours, just bigger."

As for Aslan, Griffin and the zoo's staff saw immediate results. After months of not being interested in breeding, the rejuvenated lion woke up the morning after his dental procedure feeling frisky. "He gave a big long stretch in the sun and went right to work," Griffin reports.

In early November, Aslan's companions, Tia and Bridget, each gave birth to two cubs. Griffin got to check on her patient and his new family in early December. The month-old cubs, each weighing about 15 pounds, gently gnawed on the dentist's hands. And how's the proud papa? "He's awesome," Griffin says.

Jacqueline Mitchell can be reached at jacqueline.mitchell@tufts.edu. This story first appeared in the winter issue of Tufts Dental Medicine.

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