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Sun Valley Vets Save a Rare Bengal Tiger
Thursday, March 22, 2018


Betsy Kauder has seen a menagerie parade through the Sun Valley Animal Center from a snow leopard from the Idaho Falls Zoo to a bear to an alpaca.

It was a rare endangered white Bengal tiger that took her breath away most recently as doctors carried it into the clinic south of Ketchum.

Dr. Randy Acker and his daughters--veterinarians Dr. Amber Acker-Sanborn and Dr. Maggie Acker-Buck--recently performed surgery to save a Bengal tiger that had shattered its femur in a fall on ice. The operation was made all the more unusual by the fact that two surgeons from Saint Alphonsus Regional Medical Center—doctors who are accustomed to working on humans—took part in the operation.

“It brought a lot of people together—like the eclipse,” said veterinary technician Trina Benson. “And I got to hold up the tiger’s mammoth paw. Who gets to do that in their lifetime?!”

The tiger—a girl named Shekinah—belongs to “The Authentic Illusionist” Jay Owenhouse, who found her limping in late February. Shekinah and her twin sister Sheena have been part of the Owenhouse family for eight years, taking part in magic shows around the country.

Owenhouse was reluctant to go public with the operation for fear of backlash from PETA. But he changed his mind at the urging of the Saint Alphonsus publicist.

“You could see the cat really trusted its owner,” said Benson. “He’s had her since she was a baby and she was so submissive, playing with him like a kitty and bottle feeding her.”

Dr. Randy Acker, who is considered one of the top veterinary orthopedic surgeons in the country, was slated to perform a total hip replacement on a tiger from Texas a few years ago, but it died before he was able to perform the operation. This one almost didn’t go for lack of a nail.

Even the rod he uses to repair broken bones in 180-pound dogs was three times smaller than what he needed for the Bengal tiger.

At his wife Sue Acker’s suggestion, he contacted Dr. Richard Moore, who performs hip surgeries in Boise and has a home in Sun Valley.

Moore connected him with Dr. David Zamorano, Saint Alphonsus director of orthopedic trauma. And together they secured an interlocking nail—a META-TAN nail—from Smith & Nephew, which gave it to them free of charge. And the operation was on.

It took several people, including Zamorano and his three-person team that included Dr. Annie Knierim, to wheel the 250-pound tiger into the clinic. The noses of the dogs at the clinic began twitching over time as the scent of the big animal filled their nostrils.

“She was just beautiful,” said Kauder. “She was very calm, very sweet.”

Bozeman veterinarian Sarah Lavelle anesthetized the big cat.

That part of the procedure was the part that gave the doctors the most cause for concern.

“Human anesthesia is so sophisticated that you have plenty of time to do your work. I do up to eight dog surgeries a day, and I trust my team. But, I admit, I was anxious in this case. If that tiger had awakened while we had that conglomeration of people in the operating room, it could have been like a bomb going off,” said Dr. Randy Acker.

The veterinarians estimated they probably had five hours to perform surgery before the animal did awaken. The procedure took four, made more difficult by the fact that the fracture was three weeks old and had begun to heal in a bad position.

“It was an incredible experience,” said Dr. Amber Acker-Sanborn. “It was cool to see a team of surgeons who didn’t know one another work together. And to see my dad confidently lead that team was incredible.”

Operating on a tiger feels like you’re violating Mother Nature, Dr. Randy Acker philosophized. But, he pointed out, the tiger likely would have had to be put down without surgery.

“We try our very best with every means possible. We aim to treat animals as our own. And with a shattered femur it’s the only choice the animal has to heal,” he said.

Once the nail is inserted it will never have to be touched again, he added.

“The coolest thing for me was when the tiger woke up and went right up to her owner. To see that kind of relationship…That guy loves that cat. It’s part of his family.”

Randy Acker will travel to the tiger’s home in Belgrade, Mont. near Bozeman this weekend to pay a house call to the tiger, which has been resting in a bed in her trailer.

He’s hopeful. But he says there’s always risk of complications when an animal as large as a tiger puts weight on an injured leg like this soon after surgery.

“I’ve always told my kids: This is a surgery, not a circus. But, so far so good,” he said.

“I hope it goes well,” said Amber Sanborn-Acker. “She’s just a beautiful magnificent animal.”

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