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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane endodontist fixes 700-pound lion’s tooth

Zamba, a 700-pound male lion, receives a root canal Friday at Cat Tales Zoological Training Center. (Colin Mulvany)

Even the king of beasts can be humbled by a toothache.

With one mighty yawn, Zamba revealed what pains all 700 pounds of him: two missing fangs.

Sometime this winter the massive lion broke off two of his signature teeth. And he hasn’t been the same since.

“He’s always been temperamental,” said Mike Wyche, who keeps Zamba at Cat Tales Zoological Park. “But now he’s one big, badass, gnarly cat.”

For Zamba the pain must have been worse at times than stepping on the proverbial thorn.

“Nothing is good when your teeth hurt,” said veterinarian Dr. Brian Hunter.

The staff and students at Cat Tales aren’t sure how he broke his teeth down to the gums. One speculated the lion bit into an icy log this winter. Others think he got them caught in the chain-link fence that rings his quarters.

Caretakers found the sharp teeth while cleaning out the lion’s cage.

Take note: Mike and Debbie Wyche may operate Cat Tales, but Zamba runs it. He has turned his wooden platform into a throne, looking as if servants used hair dryers, combs and gel to create a bouffant masterpiece.

Some days the lion – who has never lived in the wild – is as playful as a kitten. And some days, says Wyche, “let’s just say he exhibits a bit of ‘catitude.’ ”

Friday was an up-and-down day.

Wyche has worried that without dental intervention, Zamba’s tooth problem would lead to infection and perhaps bigger issues.

It wasn’t the first root canal for a Cat Tales feline. The park’s white Bengal tiger had the procedure years ago. But Zamba, with all his fearsome roar and fussiness, presented a different set of challenges.

When Eastern Washington University dental hygiene student Erica Ellsworth heard that a lion needed a root canal, she spread the word. Within a day she had 20 offers from area dentists.

In the end the job fell to Dr. Rod Tataryn, a Spokane endodontist with a portable root canal surgery setup. Tataryn has alleviated searing tooth pain for many across the Inland Northwest. He’s the specialist many dentists call upon.

It was, he said, the biggest job he’s ever done.

Before Tataryn could start the drills, Hunter and Wyche had to tranquilize Zamba.

Wyche fired the gun and drew Zamba’s ire. He charged the fence and roared at Wyche, taking a few not-so-friendly swipes at him.

After the two darts fired into his hindquarters knocked out the lion, it took eight people to load Zamba onto a stretcher and into the care of Tataryn and his team – Jerilynn Cunnington, Lisa Howard and Emily Bollensky.

Tataryn had to special-order 5-inch long files to scrape and bore a hole deep enough to treat Zamba’s teeth.

After a few hours, the procedure was done and the Wyches could begin to relax.

Zamba hasn’t drawn such an audience since his days as a Hollywood cat. He acted in movies, music videos and advertisements, and roared for MGM studios before a trainer caught him ogling the audience rather than listening to instructions.

He was soon sent to Cat Tales for keeping nine years ago.

The Wyches also drew blood and plan to send samples to a European lab for DNA sampling. They believe Zamba is a Barbary lion, a species that is now believed to be extinct in the wild. One trait is the massive mane that trails down the chest of the males.

By visual accounts, Zamba seems a genetic candidate. If he has the right genes, he may be bred to restore the line.

“He’ll not forget this day for a long time,” Wyche said. “In the long term it was good for him. For the short term, I’m going to avoid his cage.”