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Tiger Suffers Setback in Recovery, Euthanized

April 16, 2007

Story Contact:  Mary Jo Banken, 573-882-6211,

COLUMBIA, Mo. — Sulley, a 400-pound tiger that suffered from severe malformations of his front legs as a result of abuse as a tiger cub, was euthanized on Saturday, April 14, when he succumbed to post surgical complications. University of Missouri-Columbia veterinarians had attempted to save the tiger by performing a 6-hour surgery during which the surgeons corrected the abnormality in his right leg. The surgery, the first of its type to be performed on a tiger, was conducted on March 21. Without the surgery to correct his bone deformities, Sulley's condition would have continued to deteriorate.

Sulley's weight and size contributed to failure of the orthopaedic hardware during the recovery period resulting in the need to euthanize him humanely.

"The staff of the Wild Animal Sanctuary wish to convey their sincerest gratitude to the University of Missouri-Columbia Veterinary School, the surgeons and their dedicated medical team, the Colorado veterinarians who lent support and aftercare, the medical supply companies who donated time, talent and materials, and to the Sanctuary's dedicated supporters, who make possible the rescue of abused animals like Sulley," said Pat Craig, executive director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary near Keenesburg, Colo. "We're deeply saddened by the death of Sulley, who was a much-loved resident with us for more than two years. Every possible option was considered by the Sanctuary and Sulley's doctors in an effort to save his life."

"In this case, the bad that man did could not be overcome by the good that man tried to do," said Jimi Cook, associate professor of small animal surgery and one of the surgeons who treated Sulley. "I think the sad end to his sad story should heighten the awareness and education it brings. Sulley's case highlights the need for prevention of this problem even more since even the best treatments we have could not overcome his former abuse. I think it is important that we keep telling this story to make people aware of the seriousness of animal neglect and abuse. Support groups such as the Sanctuary and Mizzou's Tigers for Tigers should be commended and supported for their efforts to prevent and stop this abuse."

Cook, director of the Comparative Orthopaedic Laboratory, was part of the MU surgical team that included Derek Fox, assistant professor of small animal surgery and associate director of the COL, and James Tomlinson, professor of small animal orthopaedic surgery.

Before being rescued by the Wild Animal Sanctuary, Sulley and four other tiger cubs were bought by an exhibitor from a breeder in Texas. The exhibitor charged 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 personnel who do not give the correct nourishment or care to the cubs. Tiger cubs are often taken away from their mothers when they are as young as 10 days. Exhibitors replace tigers that are too big with cubs.

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 to New Orleans and displayed the cubs in parking lots. This practice did not last long, however. 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 Cook through Dr. Erick Egger of Colorado. Egger was familiar with MU's expertise in arthroscopy and correction of similar leg deformities in dogs and asked if Fox, Tomlinson and Cook could perform the surgery.

"Sulley's bright and indomitable spirit has forged a bond among those who strove to save his life," Craig said. "The hope is that Sulley's story will be an inspiration for many to join together to work tirelessly to educate Americans about the tragic plight suffered by thousands of captive exotic animals, and to ensure that future generations of these magnificent creatures can live in peace and dignity, as they were born to do."

"Sulley was a magnificent member of an often mistreated and misunderstood species," Fox said. "He and thousands of others like him in this country deserve better than this. Hopefully, his story will awaken people to the plight of privately owned, captive wild animals that are so often exploited and suffer at the hands of human entertainment for monetary gain."

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.