Mango the brown bear was clearly in pain, as his keepers at Israel's Ramat Gan Zoological Park observed some three weeks ago. He was eating well, but his walk had slowed and he clearly didn't like getting up. Sure, there was clearly a problem, but just try asking a bear where it hurts.
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After a few days with no improvement, the zoo called in the A-team: a team of experts from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, headed by Merav Shamir, an expert on veterinary neurology and neurosurgery.
For the purposes of examination, as is normal procedure with large scary animals, the unhappy Syrian brown bear – whose fur is actually more of a honey-blond color - was knocked out by the zoo's in-house veterinarian, Igal Horowitz. A long series of X-rays and tests found the problem: Mango had a slipped disc between his second and third vertebrae.
Slipped discs are a common problem among people. How common they are among bears isn't known, but nobody has been known to surgically treat the backache of a bear as big as Mango – at least not before he went under the knife Wednesday.
Spinal disc herniation, as the condition is called, is caused by a tear in the membrane that allows the substance between vertebrae to bulge out. It can be caused by sheer age or excessive effort, usually lifting injury, or just bitter fate. The condition can be extraordinarily painful.
How it happened is anybody's guess. Mango is 19 years old – he's been at the Ramat Gan safari, as the zoo is usually known, his whole life; and he hadn't been lifting weights. "We have older bears," including Mango's mother, says zoo spokeswoman Sagit Horowitz. "They didn't develop herniated discs."
Operating on slipped discs has its pros and cons, at least for people. But the vets didn't think they had a better choice, since they could hardly convince the bear to let them give him physical therapy.
It took 15 zoo staffers to lift the 250-kilogram beast onto the operating table. About eight people took part in the operation.
"There are risks," says Sagit Horowitz. "There's the risk of anesthetic, or that the operation could fail. But they decided to go ahead. What were the choices?"
Even administering the anesthetic to Mango was a challenge, which was met by Yishai Kushnir of the veterinary hospital.
Merav Shamir took charge of the operation itself. "She has operated on discs on other animals, but the biggest was a lion, which weighed 100 kilos less than Mango," says Horowitz. "It took five hours just to expose his spinal cord. They had to cut slowly and carefully. "
This isn't the first time a bear has had an operation for a slipped disc, but that bear – a black bear in the United States -- weighed about 120 kilograms, half Mango's size. In addition, the slipped disc in Mango's case was particularly hard to reach.
As of writing, the team was still at work, sewing Mango up. Whether the operation was a success won't be known for quite some time.
"He could live many more years and he should live them comfortably," says Horowitz.
The next step is to take a new set of X-rays, after which Mango will be returning to his "night house," says Horowitz, adding: "He'll stay there a few days, then will stay in a separate room. We have to find ways to arrange space for him to make him exercise, move his body."
There's also the question of administering medicine, which is tricky with an animal like this. "We'll probably put it into cake," says Horowitz. "It worked the last time."