Journey for a Jaguar

Dr. Alex Herman, VP of Veterinary Services
December 26, 2023

Oakland Zoo’s Veterinary Services team recently returned from a five-day mission to perform a critical medical procedure on a 10-year-old rescued jaguar in the care of our conservation partner, ARCAS, in Guatemala. We were there to perform major dental surgery to remove a badly fractured and deeply abscessed tooth, as well as to give a comprehensive examination for the female jaguar, who was confiscated from traffickers as a kitten – a victim of the illegal wildlife trade. 

On November 27, our veterinary services team doctors Alex Herman and Ryan Sadler, with vet techs Monica Fox and Alyssa Maldonado, traveled to ARCAS’s Peten Itza location in northern Guatemala. We were joined by board-certified dental specialist Dr. Milinda Lommer and dental resident Dr. Tanner May from Aggie Animal Dental Services, frequent providers of advanced dental care here at the Oakland Zoo.

We brought medical supplies, pain medications, and specialty dental and anesthetic monitoring equipment. Due to her life as a victim of the illegal wildlife trade and unknown previous medical history, we knew we may hit life-threatening complications. Our responsibility to her and to ARCAS’ massive efforts to protect this critically endangered species in this hotspot of biodiversity weighed upon us as we prepared and traveled to meet her.

Here is our patient as an eight-week-old kitten, confiscated by Guatemalan authorities from traffickers attempting to sell her as a pet. 

Here she is right before our procedure. If you look carefully at her left cheek, you can see the abscess, the severe infection that both perforated her skin and dove into her nasal cavity, causing severe pain and discomfort.

The trip to northern Guatemala took about 24 hours with all the team and our gear…a flight to LA, a second flight to Guatemala City, and a third from Guatemala City to Flores, an island town on Lake Peten. From the Flores airport, our trip continued on dirt roads deep into the forest, where the ARCAS team strives daily to hospitalize, rehabilitate, and whenever possible, prepare rescued animals for release back into the wild. We saw wild toucans, spider monkeys, coati, and many rare species of bird as we worked onsite.

After we induced anesthesia, the ARCAS team carried the female jaguar over a quarter mile down a slippery path with many tree roots to the hospital for our procedure to begin.

Dr. Alejandro Morales, Assistant Director and Veterinarian at ARCAS, worked with the Oakland Zoo and Aggie Dental teams to position the jaguar for anesthetic monitoring and dental surgery. The space was small, but we all squeezed in and provided the very best care. Alyssa Maldonado can be seen placing her IV catheter.

We performed a full physical exam and tested for infectious diseases. The jaguar received antibiotics, anti-nausea medication, and multimodal pain medication, including a nerve block. We’re happy to say we found her to be in great shape, other than significant dental disease associated with the fractured left upper canine.

You can see the size of the fractured left canine prior to surgery here.

Doctors Lommer and May worked diligently for three hours to successfully perform the dental surgery. During that time, the Oakland Zoo team maintained a safe anesthesia, performed diagnostics, and administered all of the medications necessary to smooth her recovery and healing.

Every team member coordinated closely to achieve many goals in the shortest and safest time frame possible! Here, Monica Fox and Dr. Ryan Sadler evaluate lab results as Dr. Alejandro of ARCAS auscults (listens to heartbeat with a stethoscope).

All the team’s hard work and planning paid off! We achieved our goals: safely extracting bad tooth and making her pain free to allow her body to start healing the significant infection that had occurred in her upper jaw. Updates from ARCAS just this week show that her wellbeing was immediately and radically improved…she’s already more playful, relaxed and friendly.

The work not only supported a beautiful, rare animal and a hardworking international partner, but fulfills the Oaklands Zoo’s mission to deepen connection with animals, save wildlife, and inspire champions for the natural world.

We are proud and honored to be trusted with this jaguar’s care. Her story is not only a symbol of all the education and work needed to save jaguars and their incredible land, but also of the goodness and dedication, the fruitfulness of so many caring people working together.

We look forward to providing our services wherever they are needed, as much as we are able to do so. We’re committed to providing the very best veterinary care and support to animals and our many hardworking partners, both here in the Bay Area and all around the world.

Want to learn more about our work protecting jaguars? Click here.