Anaesthesia for lions (and bears)

The Canada Medical Journal for 1870 has news from the Raj:
Amputation of a lion's tail

lion looking mournful
Lion with a sore tail

We mentioned the other day the severe injury sustained by one of the young lions at the park from a mauling of its tail by one of the tigers in the adjoining compartment. At first there was reason to believe that no dangerous results would follow, but on Friday evening it was judged necessary that a portion, if not the whole, of the tail should be removed. Mr. Pritchard and Dr. Miller were requested to undertake the operation, which was successfully performed on Saturday morning by Dr. Miller under chloroform, of which five ounces were used, and the tail was removed close up to the stern. At one time during the operation the animal was to all appearance dead, and did not breathe. The chloroform was stopped, and Dr. Miller went into the cage and commenced briskly rubbing, so as to inflate the lungs, a plentiful supply of water being also poured over the animal.

Crash team to cubicle three! Bring a bucket of cold water!

After a brief interval he showed signs of life, and the remainder of the operation was completed, and after a little time the cub was sufficiently recovered to walk about the cage. This is, we imagine, the first and only instance of a lion having his tail cut off under the influence of chloroform.

And who knows, maybe it was the last.  But – perhaps surprisingly – this was not the first time that zoo animals had been given general anaesthesia.  In 1850 it was even proposed to chloroform a lion at the Zoological Gardens in London, after it contracted a ‘scrofulous disease’.  The eye surgeon William White Cooper (later Surgeon-Oculist in Ordinary to Queen Victoria) wrote a series of articles entitled ‘Zoological notes and anecdotes’ for Bentley’s Miscellany, a literary journal once edited by Dickens.  In an article about the lions at London Zoo he records that

we saw him the day before he died; he lay on his back with a deep and gaping wound in his neck, which  he had considerably increased by licking with his rough tongue. It was suggested that if it could be touched with lunar caustic it might assist its healing. “Why, sir,” said the keeper, “he’d be sure to bolt the caustic, for the part is so sore, and he’s so irritable, that he won’t allow nothing to come nigh him, but would bite at it directly.”  Chloroform was suggested, but the difficulty of applying it to a lion rendered savage by pain, was the objection.

If you put yourself in the position of the unfortunate keeper who was being asked to wander up to a lion carrying a bottle of chloroform and a cotton mask you can probably see the problem with this plan.  But elsewhere in Cooper’s stories of zoo life we find an account of a successful operation under chloroform anaesthesia.  The patient was a grizzly bear, and the anaesthetist was John Snow.  One of the great figures of Victorian medicine, Snow was a leading advocate of the new anaesthetic agents, and a few years later his study of the Soho cholera epidemic would lay the foundations of the discipline of epidemiology.  This operation in November 1850 is one of his less well-known feats:

On the 5th of last November, the first operation of the sort was performed on one of these grizzly bears, which was blind in both eyes.  As this detracted materially from his value,

One hopes that his quality of life came into the equation too.

bear examining rock at close quarters
Bear with cataract having to examine rock at close quarters

it was decided to endeavour to restore him to sight; and Mr. White Cooper having consented to operate, the proceedings were as follow : — A strong leathern collar, to which a chain was attached, was firmly buckled around the patient’s neck, and the chain having been passed round one of the bars in front of the cage, two powerful men endeavoured to pull him up, in order that a sponge containing chloroform should be applied to his muzzle by Dr. Snow. The resistance offered by the bear was as surprising as unexpected.

Whoever would have imagined it? A bear objecting to having a foul-smelling pad thrust over his muzzle?

The utmost efforts of these men were unavailing; and, after a struggle of ten minutes, two others were called to their aid.   By their united efforts Master Bruin was at length brought up, and the sponge fairly tied round his muzzle. Meanwhile the cries and roarings of the patient were echoed in full chorus by his two brothers, who had been confined to the sleeping den, and who scratched and tore at the door to get to the assistance of their distressed relative. In a den on one side was the Cheetah, whose leg was amputated under chloroform some months ago, and who was greatly excited by the smell of the fluid and uproar. The large sloth bear in a cage on the other side, joined heartily in the chorus, and the Isabella bear just beyond, wrung her paws in an agony of woe. Leopards snarled in sympathy, and laughing hyenas swelled the chorus with their hysterical sobs. The octobasso growling of the polar bears, and roaring of the lions on the other side of the building, completed as remarkable a diapason as could well be heard.

An octobasso is an obsolete, enormous (and therefore low-pitched) variety of double bass. It is perhaps most often encountered in overly florid Victorian prose.

The first evidence of the action of the chloroform on the bear, was a diminution in his struggles; first one paw dropped, then the other.  The sponge was now removed from his face, the door of the den opened, and his head laid upon a plank outside. The cataracts were speedily broken up, and the bear was drawn into the cage again. For nearly five minutes he remained, as was remarked by a keeper, without knowledge, sense, or understanding, till at length one leg gave a kick, then another, and presently he attempted to stand. The essay was a failure, but he soon tried to make his way to his cage… At length he blundered into it, and was left quiet for a time. He soon revived, and in the afternoon ate heartily. The following morning, on the door being opened, he came out, staring about him, caring nothing for the light, and began humming, as he licked his paws, with much the air of a musical amateur sitting down to a sonata on his violoncello.

The first time I read this conclusion, I thought the bear had in fact produced a cello and started playing.  Now that would be worth the entrance fee.  Ten days later, Cooper and Snow repeated the performance on another of the zoo’s bears, with similarly happy results.

[Thanks to Iris Millis for bringing my attention to Snow’s operations, which are put into broader context by this article by Dr David Zuck]

3 thoughts on “Anaesthesia for lions (and bears)”

  1. I read “The Ghost Map” about how Dr. Snow discovered the cause of the cholera outbreak. The man was a hero! Deborah Hopkinson wrote a children’s novel about Dr. Snow and his work in London, it’s another great book!

    1. Yes, he was a fascinating person and there was much more to his career than his cholera research. He often isn’t given enough credit for his work in anaesthesia, in particular.

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