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MU Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital Improves Leg Deformities in Abused Tiger

Tiger Was Part of "Photo for Money" Trade That Exploits Exotic Animals

March 22, 2007

Story Contact:  Christian Basi, 573-882-4430,

COLUMBIA, Mo. — While people paid $25 to have their picture taken with Sulley, a tiger cub, his malnourishment was causing his legs to bow outward when he walked. Nearly two years later, three University of Missouri-Columbia College of Veterinary Medicine surgeons attempted to correct Sulley's right leg with an innovative surgery performed for the first time on a tiger.

"This is a risky procedure in any animal, but deemed to be feasible in Sulley because of his excellent demeanor and his wonderful and attentive caretakers," said Derek Fox, assistant professor of small animal surgery. "Our hope is that by straightening the bones in Sulley's forelimb to match what we believe is more normal for a tiger, the corresponding joints will work more efficiently, and he will not be in as much pain."

For the past few years, Mizzou surgeons have been studying a technique used in humans to correct similar limb deformities in dogs. Fox practiced for Sulley's surgery using models and CT scans of the tiger's right leg. During Sulley's surgery, Fox straightened the affected bones, realigning the joints above and below the affected bones to optimize functional use of the leg and increase Sulley's comfort. Fox, who also is the associate director of the Comparative Orthopaedic Laboratory (COL), was joined by Jimi Cook, associate professor of small animal surgery and director of the COL, and James Tomlinson, professor of small animal orthopaedic surgery.

In the past year, Sulley's condition had worsened, and with the normal weight gain of an adolescent tiger, it was increasingly hard for his front legs to support his body. Without surgery, Sulley's leg deformities were leading to multiple permanent joint malformations, arthritis and pain.

Sulley's condition is similar to that seen frequently in dogs, where the growth and development of the bones that constitute the forelimb is affected by trauma, malnourishment or other systemic juvenile diseases. In Sulley's case, this condition can affect both forelimbs simultaneously.

"We really appreciate the work that Pat Craig and The Wild Animal Sanctuary does and for asking us to participate in trying to help Sulley," Cook said. "I think it is important to help Sulley and try to improve his quality of life, and even more important to educate the public so that we can try to prevent this from happening to any other animal."

Before coming to live at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keensburg, Colo., Sulley and four other tiger cubs were bought by an exhibitor from a breeder in Texas. The exhibitor would charge up to $25 at fairs and carnivals for pictures with the tiger cubs. Although this practice is legal if the exhibitor is licensed by the USDA, many of these operations have poorly trained personal who do not give the correct nourishment or care to the cubs. Tiger cubs are often taken away from their mothers as early as 10 days old. Exhibitors need small cubs to replace tigers that are too big.

When Sulley was 12 weeks old, the maximum age allowed by the USDA for these types of operations, he was returned to his base camp with his siblings. A man not licensed by the USDA but willing to try and make a profit anyway, took the five cubs. Living out of his car with five tiger cubs, he drove down to New Orleans and displayed the cubs in the parking lots. This practice did not last long. After one of the cubs died from being left in the hot car too long, and another died from unknown circumstances, the man was arrested for animal cruelty.

When the local Society of the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals confiscated the tigers, they notified The Wild Animal Sanctuary, where staff members made arrangements to rescue them and take them back to Colorado. All three of the remaining cubs were malnourished and had varying stages of leg deformities. The sanctuary's veterinarian returned the cubs to a carnivore milk formula diet. Two cubs' legs began to improve and straighten with their next growth spurt, but Sulley's legs did not. The Wild Animal Sanctuary contacted Fox, knowing he was researching similar leg deformities in dogs, and asked him if he could perform the surgery.

"Sulley's abuse and rough start in life is very typical for the hundreds and hundreds of exotic cubs born into this terrible system each year," said Craig, executive director of The Wild Animal Sanctuary. "When Sulley's legs didn't straighten out like the other cubs' legs did, we began researching how we might be able to help him. The work of Dr. Fox and the veterinary team at MU is the culmination of an amazing collaboration by a host of individuals, doctors, facilities and medical equipment suppliers. We wanted Sulley to have the best, and he's definitely got it here at MU."

Several companies have made invaluable contributions to the surgical care of Sulley. ProtoMED, located in Arvada, Colo. provided custom anatomical models of the affected bones, and Synthes USA, located in West Chester, Pa., provided bone plates and screws for the surgery. A number of similar ongoing research projects at MU's Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital are focused on re-examining a variety of orthopedic conditions that specifically relate to angular limb deformity corrections in animals.

Mizzou is home to Mizzou Tigers for Tigers, the nation's first tiger mascot conservation program. Faculty, staff, students and alumni from the College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources, Department of Fisheries and Wildlife, College of Veterinary Medicine, School of Journalism, Department of Biological Sciences, Department of Environmental Studies, International Center, University Affairs, Alumni Relations, Development and Intercollegiate Athletics are working together to raise awareness about the endangered status of the University's mascot, while raising funds to aid in wild tiger research and conservation.