Dentistry is a door to many unexpected opportunities. This was certainly the case for Dr. Sam Smiley of Dublin, Ohio. Thirteen years into his career, Dr. Smiley received a fateful call from the Columbus Zoo. A 350-pound western gorilla was not eating properly and was in obvious distress. Dr. Smiley was asked if he’d perform a dental exam during the gorilla’s routine physical. He agreed, and so began his career as a volunteer dentist for the Columbus Zoo.
Since then, Dr. Smiley has had the special opportunity to work on gorillas, tigers and even polar bears. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch him sharing photos of his most recent work on the clinic floors of the Ohio State University College of Dentistry. Dr. Smiley was kind enough to sit down with me over coffee to discuss his experience as a volunteer dentist for the Columbus Zoo.
How did you get the opportunity to work on animals at the Columbus Zoo?
Dr. Smiley (S): Well, about 15 or 20 years ago, Mike Berry, one of the new veterinarians at the zoo came into my office to have his teeth cleaned. He told me that one of the gorillas had been in a fight with a younger gorilla and had broken a tooth. He asked me if a broken tooth would keep a gorilla from eating. I told him if it’s infected, it could.
So that’s how it started. I went in and took an X-ray. Sure enough, the tooth was infected, so we did a root canal on him. I invited Jim Murrin, an endodontist from Upper Arlington, to help me since I don’t do much endo in my practice anymore. He came in with me, we did the root canal together and I placed a filling over top of it.
Could you comment more on the type of restorations you place?
S: We place composite restorations with gutta percha root canals, just like you would do on a human. We don’t place crowns on the animals. I think the zoo originally decided to ask for help from a dentist who works on people because gorillas have the same number of teeth as humans. The only difference is that the cuspids are longer. Gorillas also have twenty deciduous teeth. Orally, they’re a lot more like humans than one may imagine. Gorillas can also get gum disease and abscessed teeth.
So talk to me more about a typical appointment, from start to finish.
S: A dental exam is part of the gorilla’s annual exam at the zoo. They have a nice dental clinic at the Columbus Zoo’s veterinary hospital. It has a Cavitron, drills, burs – everything you would need in a dental clinic to work on any of the animals’ teeth. When I first started working on the animals, I would bring in an assistant or two. It was easier to bring in people then, but now they are much more strict. Gorillas can get human diseases like tuberculosis (TB), so the zoo has to make sure that you’re vaccinated against TB, that you’ve never had TB, or that you’ve never been exposed to anyone with TB. So there are a lot of obstacles now, but gorillas are pretty resilient. When they get a cut or a bite, they heal pretty fast. You don’t need to do a whole lot. Most of the time they call me just when there’s a broken tooth. I go in to make an assessment of whether or not they need a root canal.
Actually, that’s exactly what happened with the polar bear, Aurora, who broke a cuspid. I don’t know the story of how she broke a cuspid, but they wanted to know if she needed a root canal. Dr. Murrin and I went in and did the root canal. Now she’s doing very well. We got the same result with Jupiter, an Amur tiger. Jupiter, one of the latest additions to the Columbus Zoo, arrived with a broken tooth. We did a root canal on him, and he’s doing great. He’s fathered a few cubs since his arrival; not because of the root canal, I’m sure, but he’s doing great.
Which animal has been your favorite patient?
S: My favorite patient was a baby gorilla named Moanna. She was so little when I saw her for the first time. When they’re that young, you can look inside of their mouths without them being anesthetized. And as she got older, she remembered me – she knew who I was, which is pretty cool.
Name an animal that has been the most difficult to work on.
S: The most difficult animal was the polar bear because she was too heavy to move out of the exhibit. We worked on all of the other animals on a table in the emergency room. We could raise and lower the table so that we could work at a comfortable height. We had to do that polar bear’s root canal on a cold, concrete floor laying down on our sides. It was really uncomfortable. We literally couldn’t sit upright to do it. Yeah, that was a hard one. Other than that, they’re all about the same. It’s just like doing a root canal on a human except some of the teeth are a little funky in shape.
Name an animal that you’d like to work on, but haven’t yet.
S: I’d love to have the chance to work on an elephant – the tusk of an elephant. That would be awesome.
Can you imagine the working length on an elephant’s tusk?
S: Well, Henry Schein has a whole zoo division and you can buy all of these instruments right from Henry Schein. They have super-duper length.
Name an animal you would want to do a root canal on least.
S: I wouldn’t want to do a root canal on a hyena. I’ve been to Africa three times, and I’ve seen them in the wild. They just seem fierce, and their teeth are small. I think it would be hard, and I think they would smell. Actually, come to think of it, male silverbacks gorillas have the worst musk. It’s really strong – like socks in a locker in the heat for a week or two strong. Their musk is really bad.
What do you enjoy most about this opportunity?
S: How many times do you get to do something really different than what you do every day? How many times in your life are you going to be able to touch a tiger? I was able to touch the paws and appreciate how big of an animal it really was. I was able to pick up a gorilla’s hand and hold it. I have had some amazing experiences and I am very fortunate that a patient asked me to help him in the first place. You never know what kinds of opportunities you will have by getting to know your patients. I really do feel very fortunate. And it’s been a lot of fun.
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While these tasks are sometimes left to a veterinary dentist, Dr. Smiley notes that there were few, if any, veterinary dentists in the Columbus area with endodontic experience when he was originally asked to help. Endodontic procedures have since become a more significant component of a veterinary dentist’s curriculum. Dr. Smiley, however, has had tremendous success with his procedures at the zoo, has been cleared of all potential infectious disease exposures and continues to volunteer his time.
Dr. Smiley currently resides and practices in Dublin, Ohio. His practice, Smiley Dental Group is currently accepting new gerbil and giraffe patients.
~ Spencer Tepe, Ohio State ’17, District 6-7 Legislative Coordinator