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A decrepit 15-year-old African lion named Guero was rescued in Mexico, flown to Colorado and trailered to the James L. Voss Veterinary Teaching Hospital at Colorado State University on Monday for evaluation of a broken neck and badly damaged teeth.
Veterinary experts from neurology, exotic animal medicine, small animal surgery, anesthesiology and dentistry collaborated to diagnose his injuries and provide a treatment plan for Guero.
“With patients like this, it often takes a hospital to treat a patient,” said Dr. Terry Campbell, a CSU veterinarian who specializes in exotic animal medicine. “That’s why CSU is perfect for cases like this, because we have so much expertise in a variety of medical specialties.”
The 345-pound carnivore was airlifted April 24 to his new home at the Wild Animal Sanctuary in Keenesburg, Colo., from an animal rescue organization in Pachuca, Mexico, where the lion had been living for two months after he was surrendered by his owner.
“We think Guero broke his neck around two and a half years ago,” said Rebecca Miceli, director of animal care at the Wild Animal Sanctuary, theorizing that the injury was inflicted by a guillotine-type gate in the lion’s cage. “From what we know, which is very limited, Guero’s owner came home from vacation and noticed Guero was hanging his head, walking in circles, and appeared to be in pain.”
Colorado State veterinarians used magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to identify an old neck fracture that healed, but left the aging lion with chronic pain and impaired movement. After a complete evaluation, the team recommended steroids to ease Guero’s pain and to improve his movement and quality of life. They advised against surgery as a fix, noting the healed fracture and fearing the animal would not fare well under lengthy anesthesia, with an extended recovery time.
In the course of the exam, the CSU veterinarians also discovered dreadful dental disease. Guero has broken teeth, gum disease and exposed roots, possibly the result of gnawing the bars of his cage. A specialist quickly set to work with drills and cleaning equipment, prescribing follow-up root-canal surgery that will provide Guero with comfort and easier eating.
The king of the jungle traveled from Keenesburg to Fort Collins in a grass-lined crate in a small trailer. Like the king of rock and roll, he entered the hospital through a discrete doorway separate from the hospital’s daily patients.
Dr. Gregg Griffenhagen, CSU veterinary anesthesiologist, stayed with Guero through the appointment to ensure the lion was fully sedated and could be safely transported through the hospital.
“Anesthetizing a lion is both different from a dog or a cat, and yet very much the same,” said Griffenhagen. “Most of the differences arise from the facts that these animals are often large, and they cannot be closely approached. My job was to remotely immobilize and anesthetize my patient without any physical exam, and to do it in such a manner that everyone, including the patient, stayed safe and healthy.”
Radiology technician Liz Thorne first estimated Guero’s head width at 16 inches, meaning he would fit in the hospital’s MRI machine. Once the lion was fully sedated, a team of six used slings to lift him from his cage onto a gurney, then wheeled him to the MRI room. There, a multi-disciplinary team of veterinarians examined images and conferred on the diagnosis.
“After performing the MRI, we discovered Guero had previously fractured a vertebra in his cervical spine and concurrently has chronic disc disease,” said CSU veterinary neurologist Dr. Stephanie Engel, referring to disc problems in the neck region of the lion’s spine. “The protruding discs and changes secondary to the fracture are creating compression on Guero’s neck, likely causing a dull, chronic pain, as well as his neurologic deficits.”
CSU veterinarians determined Guero was not a good candidate for surgery because of his age, extensive spinal disease and the protracted time since his neck injury.
“Performing surgery on Guero would be similar to performing surgery on a 70-year-old man,” Campbell said. “Since Guero broke his neck more than two years ago, the bone has fully healed, which would make surgery incredibly risky. It would most likely cause more harm than good.”
Guero started a new pain management plan and a steroid therapy protocol immediately to help reduce the inflammation in his neck and around his teeth, with the goal of reducing pain and increasing mobility.
“We’re hoping that his neck will start moving around more normally to the point where he can stabilize and have a good quality of life, without putting him through extensive and invasive surgery that could make him worse,” Engel explained.
From the MRI suite, Guero was transported through the hospital’s back hallways to the large animal annex for evaluation by Dr. Peter Emily, who pioneered animal dentistry and founded the Peter Emily International Veterinary Dental Foundation.
Emily determined that Guero has several crown fractures, periodontal disease and root fragments on his upper incisors.
“This was likely caused by mistreatment or from chewing on hard objects, like the bars on his cage,” said Emily, who has worked on the teeth of more than 100 lions.
Veterinary students also got a bite of experience with the lion. "I was actually on the neurology rotation a few weeks ago, and today is the first day of my exotic medicine rotation. It was interesting to see how what I learned a few weeks ago from neurology was applied to Guero’s case,” Irina Vera, a fourth-year veterinary student, said.
Guero returned to the Wild Animal Sanctuary on Monday afternoon to begin steroid therapy and will receive further dental work at the sanctuary. Lions live 12-15 years in the wild, and up to 23 years in captivity, so the sanctuary will likely be Guero’s final home, where he can spend his sunset years watching the sun set over the Colorado plains.
“We really wanted to make sure—and the experts here told us—that absolutely he deserves a chance,” Miceli said. “We think he’ll most likely live another three to five years, but even if it’s a year he lives, we’re going to make sure that he’s comfortable and happy – good food, soft ground, some grass to play on and some fresh air to breathe. That’s our hope.”