When one of Jay Owenhouse’s rare Bengal tigers shattered her femur, it seemed a forgone conclusion that the animal would have to be put down.
It’s not clear how the eight-year-old white Shekinah injured herself, though it’s suspected she fell from the waterfall in her pen and landed on her hip. Owenhouse noticed that something was up with the rare white tiger, one of a pair of twins that often join him on stage, but underestimated the severity of the injury.
“I immediately talked to our vet and we thought, well maybe she had pulled a muscle in her leg,” Owenhouse told KTVB. “And tigers tend to heal pretty fast so we just kind of kept an eye on it for a couple days. She didn’t seem like she was in a lot of pain.”
Tiger bones are particularly dense, and it’s quite difficult to get close enough to properly diagnose severe injuries without the use of potential dangerous sedatives and the risk of definitely dangerous maulings.
When the tiger was still limping over a week later, the vet had her brought in for an X-ray and discovered the pulled muscle was actually a badly broken femur. Worse, the broken bone had already begun to set in a bad position.
“Kind of the consensus was that she probably would have to be put down,” Owenhouse explained. “And that was just something we weren’t going to accept because she’s part of our family. If her femur could be repaired and she could live a life without pain then it was worth any cost to fix it.”
Dr. Randy Acker, a local veterinary surgeon and owner of Sun Valley Animal Center, was going to use an interlocking nail to secure the tiger’s healing femur, but realized that the parts needed for the operation didn’t come in Bengal tiger size. He sought the advice of surgeon (the type who works on people) and director of orthopedic trauma at Saint Alphonsus Hospital, Dr. David Zamorano.
“I told him I don’t really know much about tigers. And so he sent me some X-rays, I took a look at them and I told him it looks just like a human femur. I think you probably can fix it just like you would fix any human,” Dr. Zamorano told the media.
Dr. Zamorano sourced the necessary parts, then accompanied Dr. Acker, a veterinary team, equipment representatives from Boise and an anesthesia team from Montana to Ownehouse’s compound.
Despite all their preparation, the team was faced with another problem: anesthetics. Humans can remain under anesthesia for long periods but time, but the sheer amount of drugs needed to keep 300lbs of tiger unconscious can be dangerous. Also, human patients don’t tend to eat doctors should they wake up mid-surgery. The surgery would have to be completed in under five hours.
In the end, the surgery took around three hours, and Shekinah is already back on her feet.
“It was a tough day but it also was a good day because I knew that if it wasn’t for the surgery that she wouldn’t have had a chance to survive,” an emotional Owenhouse told reporters. “It would have been inhumane to let her live without having reconstruction.”
Shekinah is currently being kept in her travel trailer so that her sister can’t interfere with her recovery.
“They’ve spent eight years together and so it’s really the first time they’ve been separated since Shekinah’s surgery,” Owenhouse explained. “Her sister Sheena I think is very stressed about it. So she is concerned about her sister, I think she misses her.”
It’s not clear if the tiger will return to the stage once her recovery is complete.