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Lion undergoes rare brain surgery at UT

11:43 AM, Apr 5, 2013   |    comments
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It's not that uncommon for people and even small animals like dogs, but medical experts at the University of Tennessee performed a rare brain surgery on a lion Thursday.

Weighing in at 330lbs, with thick sharp teeth and fluffy tan mane, the big cat named Ramses was shipped via FedEx from Puerto Rico.

"That was just unique. We haven't had any come from anywhere other than the continental United States before," said Mary McGarvey, with Tiger Haven. "They wanted him to have the best possible life. And not euthanize them or sell them to a private owner."

McGarvey said the zoo shipped Ramses and his brother in 2012, and the lion was fine until last month.

"He only started exhibiting symptoms about three or four weeks ago. And we noted that it was similar to another lion we had," said McGarvey.

Ramses was diagnosed with a neurological condition, Chiari Syndrome, that causes dizziness and lethargy.

"A lot of facilities would just euthanize this animal. And we can't do that," said McGarvey. "We're here to save them and protect them and give them the best possible life that they can have."

Dr. William Thomas, a veterinary neurosurgeon at U.T.'s College of Veterinary Medicine, said the condition means Ramses has a lot of extra bone formation at the back of his skull.

"That bone formation is pressing down on the back part of the brain, called the cerebellum," said Dr. Thomas. "So what the surgery entails is to go in and remove as much of that bone as we can to relieve the pressure on the brain."

After Ramses was put to sleep, the team shaved his mane and pelt, and prepped for the lion surgery, called Occiptal Craniectomy.

"It is a little challenging mainly because of their size. They have a really big skull to start with and then all of this extra bone formation, so the bone is really thick and it's tedious to try to get all of that removed," said Dr. Thomas.

Thursday's surgery was the third Dr. Thomas has performed on a lion, but he said only a couple other lions have a had the procedure done in the world.

"The only way to recognize it is to do things like an MRI and a lot of times that just doesn't happen in large cats like this," said Dr. Thomas. "We've learned a lot. Anytime we do something new like this on a patient, it helps us with other patients in the future."

McGarvey said Tiger Haven will use video surveillance for the next 48 hours to monitor Ramses.

Tiger Haven is funded on private donations, and McGarvey said a lot of the animals the organization takes care of were in the circus, retired from the zoo, or privately owned as pets.

"Many come from breeding facilities for exotic animals that are just like puppy mills. Anyone that has the money can buy a lion or tiger," said McGarvey.

McGarvey said a recent example included a big cat that a person had tried using a machete to cut its claws.

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