February 04, 2013
Lions and tigers and bears
Dentist's hobby is treating exotic animals
Medford, N.J.—Zoo America had some bullies in its midst.
All in a day's work: Dr. Edward Shagam poses with Bengali at the Popcorn Park Zoo Animal Rescue and Sanctuary in Forked River, N.J. Photo by Josh Shagam
Family assistance: Dr. Shagam treats Sasha, a white tiger, while his wife, Vicki, assists. Photo by Josh Shagam
Word of the attacks made its way to the curator of the zoo, who knew just the right person to call: Dr. Edward Shagam. The Medford, N.J.-based orthodontist has been a zoological dental consultant since 1979 and had a theory for why the two wolves were ganging up on the third.
Dr. Shagam and the veterinarian he was working with hypothesized that if they cut down the wolves' canine teeth, their aggression would diminish. Ten hours and 12 root canals later, they found out they were right.
"We saved a life that day," Dr. Shagam said.
Dr. Shagam, 64, travels around the country as a dental consultant for zoos and other facilities that house exotic and endangered animals. He even consults for zoos and veterinarians in other countries, often diagnosing the animals from his home by viewing films sent to him through the mail or digital X-rays on his computer. Dr. Shagam will then help the foreign zoos, which often can't afford to fly him out, find someone in their country who can treat the animal.
Dr. Shagam got his start treating a famous animal of sorts: the tiger that played the Exxon Tiger in advertisements. The tiger had a broken tooth, which Dr. Shagam said he was able to examine by feeding the animal a bottle while lifting his lip to see inside his mouth.
Lion's share: Dr. Shagam treats a lion named Jazz at the Popcorn Park Zoo, which is part of the New Jersey Humane Society. Photo by Josh Shagam
"You have to crawl across the floor because they're so skittish," Dr. Shagam said. "One time a seal kissed me on the forehead. Then I had fish scales all over my forehead."
"They're difficult to anesthetize so they have to be treated while they're awake," Dr. Shagam said. "You have to depend on the zookeeper to make sure the elephant keeps its mouth open when you're working on the oral cavity. I also work on their tusks, which are teeth that grow into their head. When you see an 8,000 pound animal in front of you, it's a little overwhelming."
"Bears can be touchy. They play possum so when you anesthetize them, they'll act like they're out so you have to push them around to make sure," Dr. Shagam said.
The list goes on.
"I don't consider it dangerous anymore," Dr. Shagam said. "I really have a great deal of respect for these animals."
Working with animals is a hobby of Dr. Shagam's and one he doesn't charge a fee for. He enjoys working with other medical and animal professionals and brainstorming why the animals are acting a certain way.
"It's a nice network," Dr. Shagam said. "It's different than dentistry because you don't have the loneliness. If you're in a solo practice, you have nobody to bounce ideas off of. I can talk with the vets and the zookeepers, and we can throw ideas back and forth. It's a lot less lonely."
He's also picked up some tips on how to deal with some of his younger dental patients who can't express why their teeth feel the way they do.
"Animals can't talk and you can only go by their symptoms and their behaviors. Their behaviors are absolutely incredible," Dr. Shagam said. "As corny as it sounds, you have to listen to them and watch them and know all of their habits. Their behaviors basically give it away. It's a fascinating experience."
Adding to his resume, Dr. Shagam also trains police dogs for search and recovery missions and said he was the first road manager for the band Sha Na Na. He has no plans to retire and hopes to continue a long career of caring for the teeth and gums of both humans and animals.
"It's not really work," Dr. Shagam said. "I do it because I love it."