Cat Bite Fever
Zoo officials put a stop to fertile felines
In March 1987 Alan called me to place a birth control implant in Sasha, the female Bengal tiger. The implant dispensed a birth control drug to prevent the cat from entering her usual estral cycling, stopping her from going into heat for two years. Zoos all over the world already had too many tigers. Many different subspecies were interbreeding, resulting in a dilution of the original genetics. New cubs became a maintenance liability, costing the zoo money to feed and grow tigers not wanted elsewhere. We decided to perform the operation next week.
Tuesday I drove to the zoo after lunch. Alan showed me the implant. It was a capsule made of silicon-impregnated with the hormones about 3” long and ¾” wide. Sasha was already locked in her bedroom. Alan approached her first, made sure things were set, then called me in. As I entered the back of the exhibit the outside light diminished, and the air stilled. The entire bedroom reeked of cat piss. The tiger was in her bedroom separated from us humans by the heavy wire mesh. She knew something was different and was complaining mightily. I loaded the dart and put it into the blowgun.
The moment she saw me, Sasha retreated to the far corner of her cage, sitting on her butt, her head up growling a complaint about my presence. Waiting for her to change position, I blew the dart into her flank. Letting out a snarl she bit the thing, and tore it from her hide, pulling it free from her skin. But the medicine emptied inside, I saw the dart empty into her, but her adrenaline was so high she was still acting normally; she needed more. Over the next forty-five minutes, I blew two more darts into her to deepen her to the desired sedation level.
Once Sasha was down and quiet we opened the gate, put her on a stretcher, and carried her to a place with better lighting. Using my straight edge razor blade, removing fur from along her jugular furrow. Like the horse, the furrow is in the lower part of the neck, offering easy access to the jugular vein. I inserted a large catheter to give her instant sedation if needed. The initial three injections were dartings; the drug went in the muscles, which meant there was a time lag and a dilution of the drug as it was absorbed into the bloodstream before it made its way to the brain for effect. This catheter offered me better control over the level and safety of the procedure, giving me direct and immediate access to the blood, allowing for a quicker and stronger effect. In other words, venous access was a lot safer than intramuscular injection, and the level of sedation more easily controlled.
With Sasha’s anesthesia at the right level, I used my straight edge razor to remove her fur higher up on the side of the neck where her implant was going. Disinfecting the skin with an antiseptic, I used my surgical blade to open an incision in her skin. Lifting the skin edges with forceps, I dissected into the underlying fat layer. After opening a cavity between muscle layers, I placed the silicone implant into the pocket, threw in a couple of deep sutures to keep the thing in place, then sutured the skin closed. The procedure took forty minutes. Once done, we waited while Sasha recovered from the anesthetic. This is the time of the proceedings where the focus falls a little; we start to relax. The clean up starts, and murmuring observations begin.
Idle chitchat circulated amongst the helpers. I relaxed too, feeling good about the implant surgery. Squatting down at Sasha's head I explored the cat’s body, running my hand through her thick coat, grabbing her ears, and checking her eyes for a palpebral reflex. When an animal is beginning to wake from deep sedation the brain will squeeze the eyelids tighter when a finger touches them. Sasha had a mild palpebral reflex; she was starting to wake up, just a little.
We still had some time before she was to be put away in her bedroom. Her mouth was partly open; I noticed one of her upper right molars exhibited decay; it was blackened and looked cavitated. I needed to check this out. Just as on a dog or cat I went to explore the questionable tooth with my left hand. Reaching inside the mouth, I pulled the cat’s tongue with my right hand. But this caused the jaws to reflexively close, and when a three hundred pound cat’s mouth closes on a small thumb, there is no way to stop the scissor-like bite from completing its closure.
Sasha bit my thumb off.
As the jaws opened back up, I pulled my mangled hand toward me. The last articulation of my thumb was cut wide open. Not all the way off; it was still hanging on by a tissue tag on the front, but it was completely disjointed, flipped upside down, dangling obscenely when I moved my hand, but it didn't tumble to the ground because there a piece of skin was keeping it attached. I informed the team it was time to stop the procedure, I needed to go to the hospital.
On the way there I flipped the awkwardly angled digit into its original position, it felt better holding it in the correct spot. Once in the emergency room, I asked the nurse to call Mary. They took an x-ray and called in a surgeon.
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