Endangered jaguar undergoes first surgery Only wild-born jaguar in an American zoo receives critical dental work

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December 4th, 2008

The week before Thanksgiving was a busy one for an endangered jaguar at the Phoenix Zoo. After arriving from Mexico, the animal underwent complex surgery on Nov. 21 to begin its recovery from injuries sustained while in captivity.

Illegally captured from the wild but subsequently seized by Mexican law enforcement officials, the young male cat suffered damage to its canine teeth while being kept in an inadequate enclosure. The Mexican government authorized a one-year loan of the cat so that the necessary dental surgery could take place at the zoo.

A board-certified veterinary dental specialist, Dr. Chris Visser, volunteered his time to perform the surgery with assistance from dentist Dr. Louis Visser, anesthesiologist Dr. Victoria Lukasik (one of two veterinary board certified anesthesiologists in Arizona), and cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Brian DeGuzman.

The extent of the damage was unknown until X-rays and blood were taken after the cat was sedated. Based on the results of those tests, veterinarians chose to extract three upper incisors and perform four root canals on the other affected teeth.

“Dr. Visser has long been a tremendous asset to the Phoenix Zoo, performing many procedures on our animals,” said Phoenix Zoo CEO/President Bert Castro. “We are grateful that Dr. Visser’s work will improve the quality of life of this jaguar and hope to learn more about this magnificent animal through some important DNA studies we will be conducting. After its stay in quarantine, this amazing animal will be on exhibit so that our guests can meet it and learn more about the plight of the jaguar in this region.”

While the jaguar was sedated, veterinarians also took blood and tissue samples as part of a DNA study being done to learn more about the jaguar population segment that uses southern Arizona and New Mexico as the northern extent of its range. Genetic analysis will be done by Dr. Melanie Culver at the University of Arizona.

“We look forward to gaining new information from the lab tests to learn more about a virtually unstudied segment of the jaguar population,” said Arizona Game and Fish Department project manager, Bill Van Pelt. “We hope to use the test results and visual observations of the jaguar over the next year to learn more about how this animal varies from individuals in other population segments throughout Mexico, and Central and South America.”

Even with the surgery, the jaguar will not be returned to the wild.  Preliminary evaluations conducted in Mexico shortly after placing the animal in a zoo determined the tooth damage was too extensive to allow the animal to be successfully returned to the wild.

The jaguar loan and medical services are a cooperative international effort of the Mexican government, the Centro Ecologico de Sonora, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Arizona Game and Fish Department, and the Phoenix Zoo.

Jaguars range from southern South America through Central America and Mexico and into the southern United States. By the late 1900s, jaguars were thought to be gone from the U.S. landscape, but two independent sightings in 1996 confirmed that jaguars still used Arizona and New Mexico as part of the northern most extent of its range.

The species has been protected outside of the United States under the Endangered Species Act since 1973. That protection was extended to jaguars within the U.S. in 1997, the year after their presence in the Arizona and New Mexico borderlands was confirmed. A team – the Jaguar Conservation Team – was established in Arizona and New Mexico to conserve the species.

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