FORT COLLINS - The horses were moved, the police were alerted, and Colorado State University's Veterinary Teaching Hospital was abuzz Tuesday as a rescued grizzly bear arrived for surgery to repair both elbows, which apparently were broken when the carnivore was confined in a concrete bunker as a roadside attraction in north Georgia.
"This is the most exciting case I've been part of during my two years of clinical rotations in veterinary school," said vet student Barr Hadar, who would compile case notes on the patient thought to be a mix of grizzly bear and Syrian brown bear. "That's what interests me in veterinary medicine, especially wildlife medicine. You never know what you're going to get."
Last month, the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo., rescued "Marley" and 16 fellow inmates from a foreclosed "bear park," where the animals were kept in cramped concrete pits and fed apples and bread by tourists. The bears were released into 15-acre natural habitats on the plains northeast of Denver, but sanctuary keepers noticed Marley, a 7-year-old female, would not put weight on one of her front legs, said Rebecca Miceli, who accompanied the impressive patient.
The 300-pound grizzly came to the CSU Veterinary Teaching Hospital crated and anesthetized on Tuesday morning. Examining radiographs, veterinarians soon determined Marley had not one, but two forelimb fractures estimated to be more than a month old; one break was badly infected.
"Our main concern is the infected fracture on the left forearm," said Dr. Terry Campbell, a CSU veterinarian specializing in wildlife and exotic animals. "A draining, open fracture on a bear is anything but ideal, and we will need to surgically treat it immediately."
Campbell knew the procedure would require the skills of an orthopedic surgeon. But was it a job for a large-animal or small-animal orthopedist? The decision: both.
PHOTOS: Marley's Surgery
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"We have to determine: Is the bear more like a dog or more like a horse?" Campbell said before surgery, referring to the patient's bone structure. "The truth is, it's a bear. It's not like either. So we, as a team of veterinarians, collaborate to find the best solution."
Dr. Felix Duerr, small-animal orthopedic surgeon, and Dr. Jeremiah Easley, equine orthopedic surgeon, jointly handled the successful surgery. In the case of the infected forelimb, vets cleaned the infection, looked for necrotic bone, cleared scar tissue and inserted antibiotic beads to promote full healing. Duerr then provided shockwave therapy to accelerate the process.
Also essential to the case were veterinary anesthesiologists, Dr. Pedro Boscan and Dr. Gregg Griffenhagen.
By Tuesday afternoon, Marley was recovering, and CSU veterinarians expressed hope that their unusual patient would have a greatly improved quality of life. Miceli, director of educational programs at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, said she thought Marley could potentially live another 20 years at the home for rescued large carnivores.
For veterinary students involved with the case, the memory of Marley might last just as long. As the grizzly bear arrived, excited murmurs filled the hospital halls, and students swarmed the windows and doors of the large animal wing to catch a glimpse of an ear, nose or paw.
The equine unit had been alerted about the grizzly to prevent spooking among horse patients. A police officer was on standby, a standard precaution when a large carnivore is in the hospital, Dr. Tim Hackett, hospital director, said.
The students lucky enough to be on rotation with the wildlife and exotic animal service were able to observe Marley's treatment up-close and to weigh in on options.
"Yesterday, we saw a guinea pig, a rat and a of couple ferrets. Today we get to see a grizzly bear," third-year vet student Katherine Alley said. "This week is definitely turning out to be pretty cool and heightens my interest in pursuing a future working with exotic animals."