Open Wide for the Zoo Dentist

Odd Jobs, People
on October 19, 2008
Sam Castro Scheels extracts a tooth from a Dall sheep.

Dr. John Scheels, 60, snaps on his latex gloves and dons his surgical mask before reaching his hand into the mouth of a Western lowland gorilla named Femelle. Scheels examines and eventually extracts a diseased tooth from the sedated 46-year-old gorilla at the Milwaukee County Zoo in Wisconsin.

"We don't touch animals until theyre unconscious," Scheels says. "They do get your attention if they wiggle or move their legs in their sleep or come out of the anesthetic a little bit."

Scheels, who has a regular dental practice in Wauwatosa, Wis. (pop. 44,798), is considered one of America's foremost zoo dentists, making house calls to aid ailing animals in zoos, where he performs root canals, tooth extractions and cleanings.

Averaging 26 cases a year since he began in 1981, Scheels has treated some 70 different species, from 3,000-pound rhinos to a 4-ounce pygmy marmoset.

"I think I've done more root canals on polar bears than anyone else in the world," says Scheels, who's also worked with Chicagos Brookfield Zoo and the Henry Vilas Zoo in Madison, Wis.

Dr. Roberta Wallace, a Milwaukee County Zoo veterinarian, says Scheels has been vital to the well-being of the zoos animals.

"Dental disease can lead to severe or chronic pain, weight loss, poor body condition or even starvation if it is bad enough," Wallace says. "John's work is a fundamental part of the preventive medicine and general health programs at the zoo. We consider him an integral member of the zoo hospital team and one of the best, most knowledgeable and experienced zoo dental consultants worldwide."

Scheels interest in zoo dentistry began in 1981 when he read a magazine article about zoo dentistry and contacted the director of the Milwaukee County Zoo about volunteering his services. A few months later, Scheels helped his first animal, a young orangutan. The primate had fallen, breaking some teeth, and needed an abscessed tooth removed. "I did (the procedure) in the evening with a flashlight," he recalls. "They had propped the animal up against a hay bale in its cage."

Working on the big apes and monkeys is somewhat comparable to working on his human patients, Scheels says. But that's where the similarity ends. He does a lot of homework, consulting dentists from zoos around the world before conducting a procedure on an unfamiliar species. Because the field is so specialized, Scheels has had to adapt tools, and even designed and patented a special mouth prop.

Dental procedures generally are limited to acute cases because there's always a risk when working with wild animals. He is still in face-to-face contact with tigers and bears, or in the stall with a rhino, and there is some inherent danger in these situations, Wallace says.

But Scheels has grown accustomed to the danger as well as the reward. It's a very unique opportunity to contribute to the health of these endangered species, he says.

Plus, his work with animals makes for a great topic of discussion with his human patients. At first there was a little anxious reaction, he says of telling patients about pulling a gorilla's tooth or doing a root canal on a polar bear. But now, its an icebreaker.

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