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Germ Bag

Gaping Into the Maw

By Suz Redfearn | Posted 5/9/2001

Whew. At least there's one thing I'm not going to have to warble on my deathbed, and that's: "I'm just sorry I never got to watch a large, sedated predator having dental work done."

The whole episode began inauspiciously enough, with Marty returning from work on a Thursday night and spending hours cavorting about--cooking fish, eating, reading Sports Illustrated, watching cable. The man was home for hours before he got around to mentioning that he'd be heading down to the National Zoo in the morning to watch a root canal being administered to some large animal, perhaps a bear.

Talk about burying the lead. I was aghast, stunned that these weren't the first screaming words out of his mouth when he got home. Dental work on a huge wild animal--what could be better? Where were his priorities? Upon hearing his lackadaisical late-night announcement, I made one of my own: I'd be going with him.

Never mind that he had special clearance to get into the zoo's closed vet hospital because he was writing a profile on the new zoomaster. Never mind that I had no such clearance. If there was a drugged beast of the field getting fluoride treatments, I had to be there. I just had to.

The next morning, I easily slithered into the bustling vet compound with Marty; the people there were so distracted they probably figured I was his assistant or something. At 9 a.m., the place had the feel of a science lab, all sterile and serious--except that instead of small, pale, white-coated men and women, the place was teeming earthy types in dark blue jumpsuits, scurrying around with great purpose. They didn't care who I was or wasn't.

A tall one met us and led us deeper into the bowels of the building and, ultimately, to the threshold of what looked like an operating room. She turned around and told us to stand by the door. With little tingles of glee, I tried to look past her at what sort of monster lay on the table. A bloated hippo? A rickety giraffe? A limp zebra?

"Sorry," she said. "We're running late this morning. The bear that needs a root canal isn't here yet. Right now we're working on a lion with a cracked tooth." Then she dashed away, and I saw it--the King of the Jungle, lying not eight feet away, passed out cold. Wow.

The flaccid, golden creature had his back to us, but I could see he had tubes snaking into many orifices, just like your average human under powerful anesthetic. He was an even tawny color, his body about the length of a tall man. His bushy brown mane with its black highlights resembled a slightly unkempt but sexy throw rug, and made me think of reclining by a fire in the Poconos. He seemed to need conditioner.

I was taking all this in, but somehow, this gargantuan cat just didn't seem real. He looked like a museum display that had toppled over, with folks huddled over it, passionately poking it for no good reason.

But this wasn't a weird practice run. It was a genuine Panthera leo. Fabled character of many a cartoon, roaring mascot for a mega-movie company, star murderer on countless nature shows. Life expectancy: 15 years. Natural habitat: sub-Saharan Africa. Diet: anything that comes near it.

"In case you were wondering, he's in the lateral recumbency position," offered an adrenaline-filled visiting vet student, also loitering by the door. Little upstart.

As his lateral recumbency faced the opposite wall, we couldn't see the lion's major instrument of terror, his mouth. We watched the back of his head and observed the large-animal dentist, bent over the beastie in earnest and wearing glasses that indicated he was headed down into the mines. To our delight, the dentist looked up and beckoned us to come closer.

As we hovered next to the golden feline, the dentist went into detail about what he was doing to the lion's tooth, but I could only pay attention to how whacked-out it felt to be two feet from the mouth of a live African lion, what with this particular animal being such a fan of maiming and all.

Marty was ignoring the dentist too. "What if it suddenly wakes up?" he whispered to me, reading my mind.

I noticed then that the titanic cat's one visible eyeball was wide open and glistening but, thankfully, quite dead-looking. A woman in coveralls swooped in and smeared some gunk into it. I spent a while leaning down and contemplating the girth of the lion's head. It was the size of a small boulder--but a boulder capable of emitting a roar that can be heard by prey five miles away, or so says Animal Planet.

Suddenly another member of the coveralls-clad crew told us to get back to the door because we had pushed the room's capacity over the maximum of 10. As a sort of apology, she filled us with fun facts. The cat's name was Tsavo, she said. He weighed in at 429 pounds. He was relatively old--12--with a rash on his abdomen that made the vet people suspect cancer. So while the dentist continued digging around in Tsavo's mouth, a team of jumpsuits began digging around in his crotch, looking like they were helping him give birth.

As they probed, Tsavo's lower limb bobbed around in the air like a monstrous turkey leg. A few minutes later, a woman pulled her head out of his nether regions and walked by me with some sort of bloody mass wrapped up in a towel.

I saw then that Tsavo's bony lion butt was resting on a little red canvas sandbag, the same kind used in yoga class if one requires extra support when getting into awkward positions. Focusing on that part of the body, I spied a handsome young fellow named Juan periodically maneuvering something into Tsavo. Soon I saw that it was a big thermometer. How can Juan not sputter and giggle while carrying out his job for the day? I thought. Then I realized it's because Juan isn't mentally stuck at the age of 11, like me. A tube of KY Jelly fell to the ground.

Soon it was time to turn Tsavo over for better access to his right side. This kicked up a lot of commotion in the OR. With great seriousness, all hands gathered round and pulled at the black canvas under the lion. They yanked and pushed and adjusted and, in unison, gathered him up in the lion bag and turned him over to face us. As he flipped, I got a peek at Tsavo's genitals, which didn't seem all that impressive for an animal of such majesty.

Stretched out on his left, Tsavo revealed for us a much more dramatic view. Yep, that's a real lion, my inner self finally realized. My heart rate spiked a little. The tremendous feline's thick forearms hung off the table, revealing black pads underneath just like my cat Habbib has. But unlike Habbib, Tsavo's paws were the size of personal pan pizzas. Pizzas that can rip your face off.

Then I noticed his mouth, colossal, with pink and black gums. His immense tongue lay on the table. It was covered in white spiny things lying flat in perfect unison--the better to scalp jackals with, I guess. I thought of the countless slabs of meat that have passed through that cavern, victuals that came from the grocery store, prime cuts the beast probably wishes he could have slain and torn to ribbons himself. I focused on the thick, clear tube running down the lion's throat, and on the IV keeping him inert. I was sorry I hadn't been there to see it all inserted. What must a lion sound like when it's choking and sputtering?

The dentist scraped away at a tooth, then fired up a drill that sounded like the one my dentist uses. Marty cringes, looking like he's going to have to leave the room. "Eeew, that drill sound," he sing-songed. Tsavo's gums took on a bloody cast. The doc looked up and said the lion was close to needing a root canal. Apparently that was going around at the zoo. Perhaps the animals aren't flossing.

We were introduced to the lion keeper, who looked like a housewife, except for the nose ring. She picked up a personal-pan paw and squeezed it until a few claws emerged. I expected them to look like fat, screaming needles of death, but instead the cat's nails weren't that big a deal. Here lay the mightiest carnivore Africa has to offer, but up close his weapons of destruction weren't all that, and at the moment he couldn't even swat a prairie dog. I felt special--I had seen the monster at his weakest. But then, a visit to the dentist can suck the power out of even the grandest among us.

Just as I began meditating on that, and on the lion's pitiful breath filling and emptying the black balloon at the end of the breathing tube, the vets finished up. It was time to get the lion outta there and lug the ailing bear in. Everyone got all worked up again and, manuevering that handsome carrying case, they grunted and strained as they heaved Tsavo off the table. About six of them staggered through the halls pallbearer-style, carrying what looked like a slumbering pajama-party victim being toted out into the yard on a bedsheet.

We followed the intent crew out the back door, expecting to see Tsavo loaded into a custom-made leviathan transporter replete with cranes, pulleys, and important-sounding beeping noises. Instead they opened the back of a green minivan and pushed him in. The dentist got in and squatted near the great boulder head, someone slammed the door shut, and the lion was whisked off down a private lane. I pictured him waking up prematurely and making mincemeat of the dentist, but there were no news reports of such a thing, so I assume that didn't happen.

For the rest of the day my head swirled with pressing concerns: Where do they take him while he comes to, a lion ICU? Will he have disorienting dreams about being powerless and paralyzed amid a swarm of humans in blue? Will his roar sound gravelly for a few days because of the tubes? Will his eyes feel dry? And, perhaps most importantly, will he remember a strange woman in a pony tail and black fleece leaning down to stare at him?

I never got an answer to any of these inquiries; that's just the way the universe works sometimes. But a few days later, I returned to the zoo and looked for Tsavo. On the treed hill that functions as the lion display, I saw two identical cats sitting Sphinx-like, lifting their heads and flaring their nostrils to draw in the spring breeze. I wondered which one had tooth sensitivity as the cool air moves across his palate. I wondered which had a nagging ache near his package. But neither crinkled a giant feline brow in irritation or woe. All was well in their world.

I walked home, content that I had one less thing to experience before I die in captivity.

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