Dental Procedure Restores the Roar for Potter Park Lion


What is the best time of day to visit the dentist?

That, of course, would be at tooth-hurty.

The king of the jungle – or queen, as the case may be – didn’t exactly get her crown, but she did receive a needed root canal thanks to the skilled employees and volunteers of the Potter Park Zoo Veterinary Department.

Ulana, a 15-year-old female African lion that came to the Potter Park Zoo in 2011 from the Pueblo Zoo in Colorado, underwent the 2.5-hour dental procedure recently at the Lansing facility. Dr. Ronan Eustace, Potter Park’s director of animal health, said animals are given daily visual exams in addition to routine health checkups, which allowed staff to diagnose Ulana’s issue quickly and create a treatment plan.

Getting Ulana sedated for the dental visit was hakuna matata for the zoo staff. She is trained to be given an injection by hand (yes, you read that correctly) and was transported from the lion enclosure to the zoo clinic, where she was intubated and maintained under gas anesthesia.

“Training is very important here at the zoo,” Eustace said. “Through positive reinforcement training, our animals are able to assist with their own health care and make it the less stressful for the animals. For example, our big cats willingly get on the scale to be weighed and allow veterinary staff to look at her eyes, draw blood, palpate the abdomen and even perform ultrasounds. The lions are trained to open their mouths and let our animal care team do a visual exam. This is how we found the problem with Ulana’s teeth so soon.”

Because there wasn’t a mouse immediately available on standby – not to mention that this issue was slightly more complex than a thorn stuck in the lion’s paw – Potter Park Zoo staff called upon the assistance of Dr. Colleen Turner. The veterinary dentist from Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine regularly volunteers her expertise at the zoo for more complicated dental issues with animals that exceed the standard care provided by the zoo’s veterinary staff. 

Dental disease can cause an animal pain and discomfort, but it may also predispose the animal to developing systemic health problems like heart disease. Despite the diligent efforts of zoo staff, animals often hide painful dental disease, which is why regular examinations are so important to help prevent, detect and treat dental conditions before they cause serious illness.

“Dental disease is one of the most common problems that I identify during routine examinations and correcting it can have a profound impact on an animal’s well-being,” Eustace said. “The range of dental disease at the zoo is very diverse, ranging from routine cleaning and polishing on a mandrill to advanced treatments like performing a root canal on a lion.”

 Ulana has recovered well from the procedure. Staff took care to avoid giving Ulana bones for roughly a month following the work, and the lion has returned to exhibit for zoo patrons.

“By keeping our animals’ teeth in excellent condition, we can help them have long healthy lives,” said Eustace. “Animals at zoos often live longer than those in the wild, and having complete dental care is a key factor to helping them live a long happy comfortable life at Potter Park Zoo.”

In the ongoing effort to continue providing high-quality care to the animals at the Potter Park Zoo, the zoo’s veterinary department is raising funds to purchase a digital dental X-ray system that would allow the zoo to perform dental digital radiographs. The equipment would increase the zoo’s ability to detect dental disorders earlier and allow prompt interventions, which would greatly benefit the nearly 500 animals that call the Potter Park Zoo home.

Donations can be made online by visiting


Dr. Colleen Turner, a veterinary dentist who works with Michigan State Veterinary School, performs a root canal on female African lion Ulana.

Dr. Ronan, Director of Animal Health at Potter Park Zoo, sutures the gums of female African lion Ulana after removal of a damaged premolar.

Tags: Lion, Potter Park Zoo, root canal, zoo

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