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Kristy Owen with Bumper
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Kristy Owen with Bumper (center) and LuSeal (foreground) in drained pool shortly before Bumper is transported. Photo credit: Sarah Trudel, NEFSC/NOAA


Bumper's return to the seal habitat, Sunday April 6, 2014. Video credit: Sarah Trudel, NEFSC/NOAA

Bumper and LuSeal get reacquainted, Sunday April 6, 2014. Video credit: Teri Frady, NEFSC/NOAA

April 11, 2014
Contact: Shelley Dawicki

Bumper’s Big Day: Woods Hole Science Aquarium Harbor Seal Goes to the Dentist

Bumper, a six-year-old harbor seal at the Woods Hole Science Aquarium (WHSA), had oral surgery on Saturday, April 5, at the Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists facility in Buzzards Bay, Mass., to remove a fractured tooth.

The upper left canine tooth had been compromised since Bumper came to the aquarium in 2008, and degenerated over time. Recently, it appeared to have partially fractured and the area around it became infected. Despite treatment with topical antibiotics, the tooth continued to degrade and the infection was not fully resolved, affecting Bumper’s ability to eat properly and without discomfort.

Bumper’s dentist, Dr. Larry LoPresti, advised that the tooth be taken out as soon as possible before it fractured completely. After considering that advice and consulting with other aquaria and zoos in the region, Bumper’s veterinary team and caretakers agreed. 

Dr. LoPresti felt the fractured tooth would continue to cause problems and could not be saved. The WHSA staff then recruited nationally known marine mammal veterinarian, Dr. James Bailey, who specializes in anesthesia for marine mammals, which was perhaps the riskiest part of the procedure. Bumper is in good health and everyone was available, so the timing was perfect.

“Removing the tooth now made more sense than waiting until we had an emergency,” said Kristy Owen, the WHSA biologist who led the effort. “In an emergency, we would be hard pressed to get together a team as experienced as the team that did the procedure.”

It was not the typical trip to the dentist, however. The WHSA staff, including Owen, WHSA curator George Liles, and biologist Sarah Trudel, planned the procedure for several weeks, assembling the medical team, gathering supplies, and confirming logistics.  Also, the staff routinely handle Bumper and LuSeal, the aquarium’s other harbor seal, to reinforce behaviors that allow caregivers to examine teeth, take x-rays, weigh, and take other measures of their conditions. The seals also learn to get into a crate. Those husbandry activities paid off, as Bumper followed directions and reacted well to the situation.

At 235 pounds, Bumper didn’t fit into a large pet carrier, so a special crate was built that would also fit in the back of a mini-van.  Gary Pearson and Steve Weldon of the Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s facilities department built a special carrier to transport the seal to Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists, the closest animal hospital to Woods Hole with the necessary space and equipment.

Owen also made a special mattress for Bumper to lie on in the transport cage, at the hospital, and back at the aquarium.  A soft bed was needed to cushion his body and prevent injuries and muscle atrophy during transit and during the procedure.

Owen and Trudel were with Bumper through the entire procedure, which took about two-and-a-half hours. The operating room scene was much like that for any surgery, with attending staff and assistants wearing scrubs surrounded by lots of equipment.

After Bumper was anesthetized, the tooth was extracted, along with many small pieces of the fractured root, and the area closed with dissolving stitches. He is being given antibiotics to help heal the gum area and prevent infection.

The 24-hour period following the surgery was considered critical as Bumper recovered from sedation, just as it is with a human patient. He remained at the animal hospital until early Saturday afternoon and was then transported back to the Woods Hole Science Aquarium. He rested in an area off the main seal habitat, specially designed for holding the seals when they are off exhibit. Staff monitored him overnight, taking shifts to make sure he resumed normal behavior.

Bumper’s return to the seal pool Sunday afternoon, April 6, at 1:30 pm brought smiles, and big sighs of relief, as he swam around the pool.  “He is doing well, eating and swimming, and is pretty much back to normal,” said Owen.

Prior to this trip to the dentist, Bumper had not had any surgeries or been sedated while at the Woods Hole Science Aquarium. When he was just a few months old he stranded on Long Island and was treated at the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation for injuries from shark bites. Injuries from that stranding led to scars on his corneas; he is blind in his left eye and sees only shadows in his right eye, making him unable to survive in the wild. He found a home at the WHSA in May 2008, where he has remained. Bumper’s pool mate, 11-year old LuSeal, also stranded young and cannot survive in the wild on her own.

Veterinary anesthesiologist Dr. James Bailey of Innovative Veterinary Medicine, and Dr. Larry LoPresti, a dentist who has worked with Roger Williams Zoo and other regional zoos and aquaria, led the medical team. Dr. Bailey administered anesthesia during an eye surgery on an animal at another area facility on Friday, and then on Bumper on Saturday. They were assisted by a team from Cape Cod Veterinary Specialists, WHSA staff, Dr. Roxanna Smolowitz (a Falmouth veterinarian now affiliated with Roger Williams University who is serving as the aquarium’s veterinarian),  and two colleagues of Dr. LoPresti from Rhode Island, dentists Edward Katz and Gregory Theberge.

“Bumper is like a member of the family,” said Owen, who began working at the Aquarium a few months after Bumper arrived as a small pup in 2008.  “We all were anxious about this procedure, and are so relieved it is over and it went so well.”

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