By Lisa J. Mauch
When pediatric dentist David Sullivan gets called to work on the teeth of 12-year-old Sumar, he knows he’s in for a challenge. Whenever the tawny-haired patient sees the doctor and realizes he’s going to have dental work done, he hides in a corner.
“One time he held his breath during the anesthesia,” says Sullivan. “He’s been very creative and he’s got a reputation.”
This may sound like a typical dentist horror story, but Sumar isn’t your average 12-year-old. He’s 7 feet long, weighs 200 pounds and lives in the cat house at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens. He’s a jaguar. “He’s a nightmare,” says Sullivan. “We’ve done root canals on all four of his canines, but one at a time. He likes to play dead and knows all the tricks to wake up early. Luckily, animals wake up really slow.”
Sullivan, who has spent 19 years moonlighting as the zoo’s dentist, never expected to be working on big cats, primates, elephants and other such animals when he became a pediatric dentist. Then again, he never expected to be a dentist. The 1975 graduate originally wanted to be a veterinarian. Those plans were scrapped when, while apprenticing for a vet, he learned he had severe allergies and couldn’t work full time with animals—he can handle zoo animals on a part-time basis only.
His introduction to pediatric dentistry came from a neighbor. “What seemed like the biggest disappointment of my life, not being able to become a vet, turned out to be a blessing, because I love what I do,” he says. “I’m happier being a pediatric dentist than I think I would have been as a vet, but I still get to be a vet on a limited basis. Having the zoo thing come around really completed the circle.”
When Sullivan heads to the zoo, his 13-year-old daughter, Ann Marie, occasionally tags along. She was with him last year when he performed a tooth extraction on a desert cat and gave a periodontal treatment to a gibbon monkey. “My daughter loves the chimps,” he says, “and one of the helpers had a chimpanzee. They usually keep everybody away from them, but Vihm, the chimp, came over and put his arm around Ann Marie. She told me later, ‘Dad, that was the coolest thing that’s ever happened to me.’ ”
Vihm is Sullivan’s favorite patient, and one that he sees fairly often. The chimpanzee was reared by human keepers after being abandoned by his mother. Now, other chimps often knock him away because he tries to hang on their shoulders, like a human, instead of around their waists, like a chimp. “Vihm’s been smacked around by the other chimps, so we’ve treated him a few times for trauma to his teeth,” says Sullivan. “He’s really cool. He’ll let you do an exam on him without any tranquilizers.”
A visit with Vihm last December was followed later that day by a more impromptu piece of dentistry. Sullivan, a member of the men’s basketball pep band as an undergraduate, still enjoys watching the Musketeers play. He was at the Marquette game last season when a stray elbow dislocated guard Maurice McAfee’s jaw. “It was pretty obvious,” says Sullivan, “because when your jaw dislocates, your mouth is stuck open. When I saw him running around, I knew what happened. Sometimes you can pop it back in yourself. I could tell he was trying to but couldn’t get it back in. Then he took himself out of the game.”
Team physician Bob Burger knows Sullivan and summoned him from the stands. Sullivan soon found himself in the training room repositioning McAfee’s jaw. “It only took three to five minutes, then he went back out and finished the half.”
Kids and animals remain Sullivan’s specialty, however, and both can be challenging. “A lot of times kids can’t tell you what’s wrong, and animals rarely can. There’s variability in both and you have to be creative in handling them. You also learn to keep your fingers in certain places and out of certain places—with everybody.”
Sullivan concedes there is one thing kids do better than animals—listen to him. “The animals just won’t brush and floss no matter how much I tell them.”