Who do you call when a rare Sonoran jaguar needs a root canal?
After Mexican authorities liberated the endangered cat from a rancher’s trap in Sonora, the Phoenix Zoo partnered with Hermosillo Zoo to offer support. But the damage was huge. As the jaguar attempted escape by chewing through a metal cage, he ended up with several broken teeth, putting his health at risk.
Luckily, Lucero, as he was named by his Hermosillo Zoo family, kept a dental appointment with Phoenix veterinary dentist Chris Visser, DVM. With a great passion and respect for animals, Visser has pioneered dental techniques that improve the chances that endangered animals will thrive—and that means they are more likely to breed. Visser devotes countless hours volunteering his animal dentistry skills at the Phoenix Zoo, helping “patients” ranging from gorillas to ferrets, cheetahs to the tiny capuchin monkey and, recently, the jaguar Lucero. His motive? He wants children to learn to cherish the wild animals of the world, as he learned to do growing up in southern Africa.
Vicki: What was it like to grow up in Africa?
Chris: I grew up on a sheep ranch. We had quite a lot of game on the farm. We had a lot of springbuck, the national game of South Africa.
Vicki: Did you take care of any wild animals when you began your veterinary practice in Africa?
Chris: There was a wild giraffe that walked into a Texas gate [a grid on the ground] and unfortunately got his foot caught between the pipes. He fell and broke his leg. In those days I didn’t have the dart guns and tranquilizers. So I thought, what am I going to do? But, then I thought, I am the veterinarian; I am supposed to know what to do! He was standing there holding his leg up. Eventually I just walked up to him. He just stood there, and we put the cast on him. It took about two hours.
Vicki: How do you explain the fact that he simply stood still so you could help him?
Chris: That giraffe knew I was going to help him. I see it a lot with the animals that come into our office.
Vicki: Why did you decide to emigrate?
Chris: We were (originally) from Rhodesia, which is Zimbabwe today. I realized, with the terrorism and the politics, there was no future. [President Robert] Mugabe and his cronies took the farms over and let them go to rack and ruin. I wanted to come to the U.S. because I wanted a better future for me and for my family.
Vicki: How did you come to live and work in Arizona?
Chris: My first job was in New Jersey, and we lived on a farm. But the weather was not what I was used to. My kids sat in the house all of the time! I wanted to go where the sun shines.
Vicki: When did you begin to focus more on animal dentistry, and why?
Chris: I realized so many of these animals that come in—dogs and cats—they’ve got bad teeth. Eighty to ninety percent! When you have a really bad toothache, you don’t feel so good. There was no veterinary specialization done, as such, and I thought, this is what I’d like to do.
Vicki: How did you learn to provide dental care for animals?
Chris: There was no book, nothing that was written on how to do it. I learned a lot from human dentists. Because these drugs and techniques work in humans, there is no reason they can’t work in animals.
Vicki: What was the smallest animal you’ve ever treated for dental problems?
Chris: Probably a capuchin monkey. It was less than a pound, and I had to do a root canal.
Vicki: What eventually happens to animals that suffer from tooth problems?
Chris: In the wild, if they break their teeth—a lion catching a zebra, for example, will often get kicked in the face—these animals cannot hunt anymore, and they are pushed out or killed off by the others. In the zoos, we can protect them and fix them. [Lucero] was in pain all of the time. And now he is going to breed. Hopefully, we get some offspring for our own zoo.
Vicki: How do families benefit from zoos?
Chris: I go to the zoo two or three times a month, and you see the mothers and the kids. And I think, this is it. This is what it should be like. It should educate these kids. These kids would never have the opportunity to see these animals. Me and my family, we grew up in Africa. We feel privileged that we had that opportunity.
Vicki: So how do you feel when you see the animals in the wild after you’ve spent so much time with them up close during a surgery?
Chris: When we visit Africa, we go to the reserves. And sometimes, I think I have some bond with them. I think, here’s this lion, walking. And I’ve worked on lions like that. And I think, maybe they won’t bite me if I get out of the car. RAK