Mango is a 19 year old male Syrian brown bear who lives at Israel's Ramat Gan Safari Park, a zoo not far from Tel Aviv. Earlier this week, he made veterinary history after undergoing a complex spinal surgery.
Mango had been suffering from a condition most commonly known as a "slipped disc." The formal term for the disease which is also incredibly common among humans is "spinal disc herniation," and it's what happens when there's a tear in a membrane that causes the substance between the vertebrae along the spine to become displaced, as in the graphic below on the right. The probability of developing the condition in humans increases with age, but it can also occur following a lifting injury due to excessive strain.
Why it happens in bears, nobody knows. How often does a brown bear (Ursus arctos) suffer from a slipped disc? Nobody knows that either. What physicians and veterinarians do know is that it can be excruciatingly painful.
Mango's keepers first noticed the problem when they realized that he had a hard time walking around. After a few days with no improvement, they called it a team of veterinary specialists from Jerusalem's Hebrew University. One sedated bear and an x-ray later, and they found the problem. The operation can be tricky, but the medical team decided that surgery was the best option. As far as they know, nobody has ever conducted such an operation before on a bear of his size.
The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz explains:
It took 15 zoo staffers to lift the 250-kilogram beast onto the operating table. About eight people took part in the operation.
"There are risks," says [zoo spokeswoman] Sagit Horowitz. "There's the risk of anesthetic, or that the operation could fail. But they decided to go ahead. What were the choices?"
Even administering the anesthetic to Mango was a challenge, which was met by Yishai Kushnir of the veterinary hospital.
Merav Shamir [of Hebrew University] took charge of the operation itself. "She has operated on discs on other animals, but the biggest was a lion, which weighed 100 kilos less than Mango," says Horowitz. "It took five hours just to expose his spinal cord. They had to cut slowly and carefully. "
This isn't the first time a bear has had an operation for a slipped disc, but that bear – a black bear in the United States — weighed about 120 kilograms, half Mango's size. In addition, the slipped disc in Mango's case was particularly hard to reach.
Only time will tell if the operation proves successful. Mango could live quite comfortably for many more years at the Ramat Gan zoo. According to Seattle's Woodland Park Zoo, brown bears have a median life expectancy of 20-25 years in the wild, and somewhat longer in zoos, so Mango could live on for quite some time.
After several days of pampering, Mango's keepers will begin encouraging him to exercise; physical therapy is important following this sort of surgery. They'll also have to administer medications, which they plan to hide in cake.
Graphic via debivort/Wikimedia Commons.