Updated: November 19, 2011 at 12:00 am
One of the usual ways to give medicine to a balky kitty is to open its jaws with a gentle squeeze, push it under the tongue, stroke his throat.
That’s not such a good idea if the cat is a 500-pound rare white tiger, who just had a leg amputated.
Two days after the Nov. 14 surgery, Snow Magic showed that his pain medicine is no bitter pill to swallow. The pills, hidden in a baseball-sized meatball, are tossed through the bars of the new surgery recovery enclosure at Serenity Springs Wildlife Center near Calhan. He grabbed a meatball in his humongous jaws and quickly finished it off.
The 10-year-old tiger then emitted a deep and deafening roar. Not satisfied, he did it again. And again.
Nearby in another enclosure, a couple of orange stripped Bengals joined in. The panther across the way stared at Snow Magic’s enclosure, as did three coatimundis.
Snow Magic was claiming his new den, with emphasis on HIS. “The big cats do that when they get a new enclosure,” explained Julie Walker, director of operations.
The tiger came to the facility — home to more than 120 exotics — several years ago after retiring from a magic show in Las Vegas. Stripeless white tigers like Snow Magic are rare.
His recovery enclosure is attached to the center’s medical clinic. At 7-by-12 feet it’s much smaller than the usual den so that he can’t get too rambunctious.
The cage was built a couple of weeks ago. It includes sturdy bars at the door and the two windows that let the warm winter sun in. Part of the floor is concrete, the rest padded for his comfort It is cleaned several times a day with soap and water.
Finished with the snack and his grumbling, Snow Magic relaxed. A visible long, thin red scar runs along his hip line where his left rear leg used to be attached. His white fur was shaved, revealing skin as pink as a baby’s.
He is not wearing a post-surgery plastic collar — he’d make short work of that. His veterinarian said that exotics don’t worry at their incisions like some animals do.
He seems to be mending well. He is walking, drinking water and eating. The second day home he ate an entire turkey. His usual diet is about 15 pounds of meat a day — layers of chicken, fish and beef spiked with vitamins.
Snow Magic’s medical problems began a couple years ago when he suffered a spinal aneurism that paralyzed his back legs. Steroids, acupuncture and massage healed his right leg, but not the left. Since then, he walked stiffly, but the muscle holding the bad leg deteriorated and could not be repaired.
The medical choices were surgery or euthanasia.
On Nov. 14, his day began at dawn, when he was lightly sedated, placed in a rolling cage and trucked to Colorado State University’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital, where muscle conduction, a CT scan, x-rays of spine, right leg and hip were done to ensure they were sound and that chronic pain or dysfunction wouldn’t be a problem.
“A big question was whether his good back leg was functioning as well as we thought,” explained Veterinarian Matt Johnston, CSU assistant professor of zoological medicine, who was the chief surgeon. The tiger’s forearms were certainly up to the task, being very muscular because they had compensated for the back legs.
No one could recall an amputation on a tiger at the facility. But Johnston said it was not unique anatomically.
“Tigers are just a much bigger version of a domestic cat that we do all the time. But it was neat to see something different like that.”
What was tricky was the anesthesia. “It was challenging because he had to be down for the tests and the surgery. We couldn’t do them while he was awake.”
The surgery was a major teaching moment, with more than 30 veterinarians, residents and students observing – including neurologists, anesthesiologists and even ophthalmologists. The ophthalmologists, he explained, “don’t get to look in a tiger’s eye every day.”
Emily Mehlman, a senior veterinary student scrubbed in. She is pursuing a surgery residency in small animal medicine and will apply it to large exotics.
“The surgery didn’t change my mind. It was an amazing experience.”
Meanwhile Walker and Nick Sculac, center director, were nervously waiting in the lobby.
“I was very scared,” Walker said. “If the CT scan hadn’t been good we would have had to decide whether to put him down. I was crying.”
Several clients at the hospital waiting for surgery for their dogs and cats asked her who her “pet” was.
“When I told them it was a tiger they were blown away.”
The surgery took about two and a half hours. Snow Magic was then placed in his own cage in the truck for a recovery period. ‘We had to make sure he was breathing on his own and could control himself before sending him on his way,” Johnston said.
The doctors patted his head and moved his legs to help him wake up. Walker kept calling his name, since the tiger knows her.
She imitated “chuffing” noises, the friendly huffy purr that tigers emit. Snow Magic opened his eyes and “chuffed” back at her.
“I cried again,” she said.
In coming days, Serenity Springs staff will build a small outdoor enclosure onto the recovery room so Snow Magic can exercise a bit and get fresh air. He will stay in this semi-confined area for another three weeks.
Meantime, work on an accessible enclosure is under way. It will feature a den without steps and with a tall door so Snow Magic can walk straight into it. There will be a covered patio.
More than anything, Snow Magic loved to play in a pool. He will have a ground-level pool he can step into without jumping.
Donors have so far provided about $15,700 for the medical bills and construction. The new enclosure will cost close to $10,000 including the 12-foot fence that will cost about $4,000.
Tigers can live more than 20 years.
Walker said that Snow Magic is showing he will do just fine with three legs. “In fact he seems relieved.”
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