The pursuit of happiness is resealed for a troubled bald eagle

March 21, 2012

Cyrano, the bald eagle. Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Kirk Johnson You’ve never seen a patient like this. And neither had Dr. Kirk Johnson. That’s why, at first, this Alaskan-based dentist wasn’t sure what approach to take. He had never worked on an eagle before, but was up for the challenge when volunteers from the Bird Learning and Treatment Center asked him and his team for help.

Cyrano, the bald eagle.

Photo: Courtesy of Dr. Kirk Johnson

You’ve never seen a patient like this. And neither had Dr. Kirk Johnson.

That’s why, at first, this Alaskan-based dentist wasn’t sure what approach to take. He had never worked on an eagle before, but was up for the challenge when volunteers from the Bird Learning and Treatment Center asked him and his team for help.

The problem? The bald eagle, Cyrano, was missing a large portion of his upper beak-the portion eagles use for feeding and breathing. The eagle was weak, and volunteers had done all they could. They needed an experienced dentist to take a look. That’s why they reached out to Dr. Johnson

The first meeting

Dr. Johnson and a few team members first met Cyrano at the treatment center. They weren’t sure what to expect, but the bird was cooperative during the exam-without sedation.

“This was a fully flighted, functional animal and it took a couple different people to hold it down to make sure I didn’t get injured by his beak or talons,” Dr. Johnson said. “But there was an immediate mutual respect. He’d look at me and I looked at him like, ‘You don’t hurt me and I won’t hurt you and everything will be fine.’ When you have your hands in a wild animal’s mouth you don’t really know what will happen, but he was quite docile.”

Why it worked

When Wayne Flavin, Director of Scientific Affairs at DMG America, first heard the story about the Alaskan dentist who used Luxatemp to repair a beak, he was impressed.

“We’re so accustomed to making products for people, but we understand that veterinarian dentistry is a really important part of what dentists do,” he said. “Veterinarians do a lot of dental work, they do root canals, they reconstruct teeth. This is really no different, except it was a practicing dentist who was able to do a successful treatment on an eagle. It’s not a veterinarian working on an animal, but a dentist and that’s what I thought was really cool.”

So why did this temporary crown and bridge material work? It’s biocompatible so it’s safe for the bird; it’s easy to shape into a tooth or, if needed, a beak; the material sets and hardens quickly, which is important when you’re working on a wild animal; and its lightweight and strong, so it can hold up to what an eagle needs to put it through yet it won’t weigh him down.

Solving the problem

After that first exam, Dr. Johnson still wasn’t sure where to go with this case. He talked with other dentists who had experience repairing bird beaks, but their methods usually involved wires or metals. He didn’t want to go that route. Instead, he wanted to repair Cyrano’s beak so that it was not only functional, but also esthetic. To make that happen, he needed a material that was lightweight, biocompatible and easy to modify. With that thought in mind, he went back to the center for a second time to take an impression of the bird’s beak.

He continued to think about his options until, finally, it hit him.

“I remember waking up in the middle of the night and saying, ‘A ha! I have an idea,’” he said. “Why not treat him like any dental patient who comes in with missing teeth? Why don’t I create a diagnostic wax up of an eagle beak and do that on my stone model like I would with any dental patient, and then why don’t I copy that like I would for a temporary and create, with dental temporary material, an eagle beak that meets all those criteria, lightweight, biocompatible and easy to modify. The only difference is it doesn’t look like a tooth and it’s a lot larger.”

Making and fitting the beak

Dr. Johnson uses Luxatemp in his practice and knew it had all the criteria he needed to create the beak. Bird beaks are like fingernail material, making it difficult to glue or bond to, Dr. Johnson said. They also grow, making it essential to use a material, like Luxatemp, that is easy to modify or add to when needed.

Using a technique he’d done many times over his more than 20 year career, Dr. Johnson created what he described as a “nicely shaped bird beak” that fit Cyrano “perfectly.” He fabricated the beak in his office and took it to the learning center, where it took him about an hour to fit. To adhere the Luxatemp bird beak part, Dr. Johnson used poster putty rather than glue or screws-an idea he got from the volunteers who had used poster putty to try to fill the beak’s hole.

Not surprisingly, Luxatemp doesn’t come in bird beak yellow, so after Dr. Johnson fitted the beak he had to find a way to change the color so it was a better match. He found his inspiration from a pen and pencil container. A yellow highlighter it held did the trick.

A happy endin

Dr. Johnson completed the successful repair in early January and said he has seen Cyrano since then. He’s doing well, and his new beak is functioning as it should. To keep it that way, Dr. Johnson will need to visit him every three to four months to slightly modify the beak part as the beak grows.

Cyrano is no longer disfigured, and no longer has to struggle to eat or breath. And all it took was applying a common dental technique in a slightly different way.

“It’s really doing comprehensive dentistry,” Dr. Johnson said of the repair. “It’s just with a different animal with a slightly different shape.”
 

  • Click here for more photos of Cyrano

The new standard

When this repair happened in late December/early January, local and national news outlets took interest in the story. And because of that, Dr. Johnson has received phone calls from other dentists faced with similar situations. They’re all looking for advice, and Dr. Johnson is happy to walk them through the procedure and help as much as possible.

All this from a patient he never expected to have, and wasn’t exactly sure how to treat.  “I had no expectation on how things were going to go. I guess in hind site we didn’t really know how it was going to go, but we’re happy it went as well as it did,” Dr. Johnson said. “We must have hit a home run because the bird is happy and people at the treatment center are very happy. I realized there are a lot of other people out there who have a similar challenge with all sorts of different birds and they don’t know how to do a good bird beak repair. Once people found out what I was doing and that it worked well, people started calling from all over the place to learn what I used and how it worked. And now they’re doing the same thing.”

Renee Knight is a senior editor for DPR. Contact her at rknight@advanstar.com.

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