When keepers at the National Zoo noticed that Kigali, a 15-year-old female western lowland gorilla, had a fractured tooth, they called in veterinary dentist Barron Hall, of the Animal Dental Clinic in Vienna, Virginia.
How did you want to know that, as a veterinarian, you wanted to specialize in dentistry?
Our pets suffer in silence from dental disease. But because an animal wags its tail and eats, nobody thinks there’s anything wrong—not even to get into these big exotic animals. Anything with teeth, I’ll work on.
What types of procedures are you doing on a daily basis?
Anything from routine complete dental cleaning to extracting a tooth to extracting all the teeth to root canals to placing crowns to orthodontics to oral surgery for cancer issues to fracture repairs.
How often do you get exotic patients such as Kigali?
Sometimes months will go by without hearing from the zoo. But there are times when I make frequent house calls. I’ve been there four out of the last five weeks. I started with a root canal on Draco, a cheetah. The next week it was Luke, a lion. Then I did Bonnie, an armadillo. Then Kigali.
How was it discovered that Kigali had a fractured tooth?
Usually the keepers are the ones that find these things. There might be subtle mood changes that the keepers pick up on. The animal could react very aggressive, due to pain, or become more reclusive.
How would it have affected Kigali if left untreated?
It would affect her the same way as you or I having a broken tooth. It would be painful. It can get infected. There could be bone loss. Bacteria could cause an abscess. Her face could swell up. Nothing really good would come of it.
What’s it like to work on a gorilla?
Well, she is only the second gorilla I’ve ever worked on. The other one was a male at the Dallas Zoo during my residency. Kigali was fine. It was pretty much a straightforward root canal.
Are root canals for gorillas similar to those for humans?
It’s exactly the same. Apes have the same number of teeth as we do—except bigger! Their canine teeth are much more prominent than ours. But she was a female, so hers weren’t that big.
Did you think, “Please don’t wake up”?
No, I trust the zoo veterinarians. I’m not concerned that an animal is going to wake up and bite me. I would never do exotic work without somebody knowing what they’re doing, in terms of the anesthesia.
So, do gorillas have bad breath?
Any animal can have bad breath. I can tell when some dogs walk through the door there’s something bad going on. Kigali didn’t have bad breath. But gorillas do have a distinctive body odor. It’s hard to describe. But when I smell it, I think, “Yep, that’s a gorilla.”