By Rae Burach
Due to their additional years of education and training, endodontists are root canal experts. They're so skilled when it comes to saving natural teeth that they make RCT look like a breeze. But what about when a patient has really large teeth? What if your patient isn't human? What if they're an 11-foot-long, 350-pound Bengal tiger?
This isn't a common scenario for endos, of course, but it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Stephen Cohen, MA, DDS, FACD, FICD. In 1975, Dr. Cohen performed root canal treatment on a Bengal tiger who resided, at the time, in a central Californian children's zoo. And this wasn't just any tiger— he happened to be the very tiger casted in several brands' commercials in the 1960s and ‘70s, including Kellogg's Frosted Flakes' "Tony the Tiger" ads and formerly known oil company Esso's "Put a tiger in your tank" campaign. "Wherever you saw a real-life tiger in a commercial, this was that tiger," said Dr. Cohen.
The children's zoo thought it would be prudent to remove the tiger's canines so that, in case of an accident, he could not do severe physical damage to children. However, because of the tiger's castings as a ferocious cereal mascot and petrol salesman, they created removeable canines that could be easily inserted into his mouth when necessary. In hindsight, it’s clear that this plan was inhumane. "This goes back over 50 years ago," Dr. Cohen said. "Creatures need to be treated differently. The concept of having this toothless tiger is cruel. Times change, values change."
At that time, Dr. Cohen was the chairman of the endodontic department at the University of the Pacific (UOP) Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry. The zoo contacted him to find someone who may be willing to perform the root canal treatment on the tiger. "I thought, 'This sounds so unusual; I want to do it,'" said Dr. Cohen.
Originally from Brooklyn, New York, Dr. Cohen studied at Indiana University and completed his Endodontic Postgraduate Program at the University of Pennsylvania. He opened his private practice in San Francisco in 1969 and served as the chairman of the endodontic department at the Arthur A. Dugoni School of Dentistry in the 1970s and ‘80s. He has maintained his relationship with UOP for decades and continues to teach as an Adjunct Clinical Professor of Endodontics, where he teaches webinars for countries around the world. Dr. Cohen is a diplomate of the American Board of Endodontics (ABE) and served as ABE Director from 1984 to 1989. He is a life member of the American Association of Endodontists (AAE) and has held a variety of leadership positions within the AAE and the Foundation of the AAE.
The Bengal tiger was Dr. Cohen's first and last experience performing dental treatment on non-human patients. One of the most challenging parts of this experience was the difference in size of the tiger's canines compared to human canines. They were approximately 10 times larger. "The root canal itself was 125 millimeters long," said Cohen, "whereas a cuspid on the average person is 25 millimeters." There were no preexisting instruments to perform this treatment on a tiger, so Dr. Cohen had to improvise every step of the way. He used special burrs to cut off the canines and up to three hemostats to extract the pulp because it was so strong.
The tiger was heavily sedated and experienced no pain during the procedure. Even so, the tiger let out a loud, startling growl while he was anesthetized. When asked if he was frightened at all during this unique experience, Dr. Cohen said, "It's my nature; I like to go into challenges, and if they're a little scary, I like it even more. So yes, I was a little scared, but I was going forward. If I let fear stand in my way, I won't experience life. Even to this day, I believe this. Don't be afraid; step forward." An inspiring piece of wisdom, even for those of us who aren't planning to perform dental treatment on wild animals.