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Dr. Michael Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine for the Chicago Zoological Society, prepares Malena, a 10-year-old endangered Amur tiger, for total hip replacement surgery Wednesday at Brookfield Zoo. The tiger has arthritis in her left hip.
Dr. Michael Adkesson, vice president of clinical medicine at Brookfield Zoo, prepares Malena, a 10-year-old endangered Amur tiger, for hip replacement surgery Wednesday at Brookfield Zoo. The tiger has arthritis in her left hip.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

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Old tiger gets new hip at Brookfield Zoo

The zoo brought in a top veterinarian from the University of Missouri to fix up Malena, a 10-year-old Amur tiger.

Under different circumstances, “Malena” might have chomped someone’s arm Wednesday.

But not living in the wild, the middle-aged Amur tiger instead pressed her dodgy hip against the wire mesh of her enclosure and submitted to the poke of a needle. A little while later, the woozy, 250-pound tiger was being wheeled on a gurney into Brookfield Zoo’s animal hospital for hip replacement surgery.

She was in capable hands. Dr. James Cook, a veterinarian from the University of Missouri, has performed “thousands” of animal orthopedic surgeries — from repairing the fractured arm of a possum weighing less than a pound to performing arthroscopic surgery on an African elephant.

“The elephant was actually standing the whole time, and put its foot up on a pedestal so I could get to the joint,” Cook said as he prepared to don his scrubs Wednesday morning.

Malena came to Brookfield last June. She’s 10 years old, and her joints are beginning to show their age. She’s previously been diagnosed with arthritis.

“These cats are really active,” Cook said. “They can jump 20 feet from a stance easily, and she’s not doing any of that.”

The surgery, it’s hoped, will knock out the pain and make Malena feel young-ish again.

“If we can get this joint back to normal, she should really have a full life,” Cook said.

The ball-and-socket hip joint is custom made and constructed from metal and “medical-grade plastic.”

“The technology has caught up so we can do 3D-printed, custom implants for a tiger, which was unheard of even five years ago,” Cook said.

Cook also assists with surgeries of the human kind; they aren’t much different, he says, from the animal kind.

“Other than the anesthesia and the recovery, it’s very similar,” he said. “Once you get them under the drape, it’s essentially the same.”

Veterinarians, technicians and staff prepare Malena, a 10-year-old endangered Amur tiger, for total hip replacement surgery Wednesday at Brookfield Zoo. The tiger has arthritis in her left hip.
Veterinarians, technicians and staff prepare Malena, a 10-year-old endangered Amur tiger, for total hip replacement surgery Wednesday at Brookfield Zoo. The tiger has arthritis in her left hip.
Ashlee Rezin Garcia/Sun-Times

Malena lay on the operating table Wednesday, her left rear leg shorn of its black-and-tawny fur. A wooden “bite block” about the size of a small brick was used to widen her jaws enough to insert an esophageal stethoscope down her throat to monitor Malena’s heartbeat. By late afternoon — and after about eight hours under anesthesia — the operation was just about complete.

“We were hoping for about a three-hour procedure, but any time you’re doing the first one, you’re sort of learning as you go,” said Dr. Michael Adkesson, Brookfield’s vice president of clinical medicine. “The implants all fit great. Everything came together really well.”

The tricky part is likely to come later — during Malena’s recovery.

“We can’t just say, ‘Use your walker for the first two weeks,’ and ‘We’re going to put you on bed rest for a couple of days,’” Cook explained.

Malena’s keepers will have the toughest job making sure the animal doesn’t overdo it, he said.

“The good news is that we’re going to take care of her pain really quickly. The bad news is we’re going to take care of her pain really quickly,” Cook said. “So she’s going to want to use that hip and we’ve just got to make that as progressive as we can.”

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