WEST COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - You may not think of a root canal as a life-saving procedure, but for the baboons at Riverbanks Zoo it very well may be.
"Teeth are such an important part of social status in primates that we really want to keep teeth in their mouths,” said Martha Weber, senior veterinarian at Riverbanks Zoo.
In fact, when it comes baboons you don’t want to be on the receiving end of a glance or a smile.
"The eye contact would initiate the “Hey, you looking at me? You got a problem with me?” said John Davis, Director of Animal Care and Welfare at Riverbanks. “That would be followed by the open mouth yawn, exposing those teeth, saying, “Do you really want to mess with me?”
They are social cues that signal aggression and keep order amongst a baboon troop, and because tooth problems can lead to other health problems, they are even more important for the alpha male in a troop.
At Riverbanks, 16-year-old Mikale holds that title.
"He is a dominant male, so if that became a problem for him, in the wild he could lose his status and potentially be driven out of a troop or even killed,” said Weber.
Weber added she believes dental problems are one of the many reasons baboons may not live to their full life expectancy in the wild. When it was discovered during a routine check-up that Mikale needed a root canal, vets called in human endodontist Dr. Bob Gohean.
“He’s worn it so much, that he’s worn it right into the nerve space in the root of the tooth,” said Dr. Gohean referring to one of Mikale’s canine teeth.
Gohean is an expert on human root canals and insists while a baboon root canal may sound crazy, it’s not.
"It’s very similar, as the teeth are a little different anatomically but they still have the same kind of nerve spaces in them, and they still have the same kind of dental infections,” Gohean said. "They respond just like humans do to the care we give our patients.”
Thanks to a partnership with the zoo, Gohean, who works at Carolina Endodontics, has actually performed dozens of root canals on Riverbanks animals. He says the biggest challenge with a baboon can be the size of the canine tooth. It’s twice the size of a human-canine.
"I wish I had some longer instruments,” Gohean said. “I sort of had to extend my instruments and do some tricks to try to get to the length of the end of that root.”
Like a human root canal, the infection inside the tooth is removed, the tooth is disinfected and then it’s filled and sealed.
“A lot of people think that we take roots out, but we really just work inside of them, so the little space is very small,” added Gohean.
But ultimately that very small space makes a big difference. After a successful procedure, it wasn’t long before Mikale was able to go back out on exhibit, and he was quickly back to flashing those pearly whites.
"Throughout the day if there’s any trouble, he’s not afraid to show his canines just to continue to do his job and make sure everything is running as it should,” said Davis.
The zoo’s other male baboon, Bubba, also recently had a root canal procedure.
Zoo officials say both baboons have shown no signs of problems post-procedure, and you will currently see all six of the Riverbanks baboons out on exhibit, as usual.