Carl Tinkelman’s dental career was progressing smoothly. He’d built up a practice in Center City and had a plum gig teaching at the University of Pennsylvania.
Then he got the call that would change his life: Would he consider coming to the Philadelphia Zoo to perform a root canal on a Bengal tiger?
This was back in 1976, when veterinary dentistry didn’t exist, which is why the zoo called an expert in human teeth.
Never one to refuse a challenge, the Cherry Hill, N.J., resident spent hours at the Penn veterinary school library, studying the structures of a tiger’s jaw and skull; there wasn’t much literature on the teeth of exotic animals. Figuring that standard tools wouldn’t work on five-inch-long teeth, he built his own instruments.
“It took about six hours,” Tinkelman, 72, recalled in a recent interview at a Center City Starbucks. (Efforts to observe him perform a procedure were nixed by zoo officials, who deemed it too risky.) “They had to keep icing the animal down because it was so hot in the room.”
He imagined it was a one-time thing. “Then, there was another tiger who needed it, and I did it again. I asked the director of the zoo if there was something for me to do every week.”
He never gave up his primary practice. But over the past 37 years, he’s devoted countless hours to the zoo on a completely volunteer basis, performing dental procedures on the largest mammals and the smallest primates.
Now, with so much experience under his belt, a tiger’s root canal generally takes him about 20 minutes. He recently performed a tooth extraction on a gorilla in three minutes.
The member of Congregation Beth El, a Conservative synagogue in Cherry Hill, helped dramatically improve the dental health of the zoo’s animals, according to officials there, making once-chronic problems like tartar buildup practically a thing of the past.
He’s passed on his knowledge by authoring journal articles and book chapters on dental care for non-domestic animals while teaching both veterinary and dental students at Penn how to perform these procedures. There is now a veterinary dentistry track at the institution.
“He’s been a fantastic asset,” said Keith Hinshaw, director of animal health at the zoo and an assistant professor at Penn’s veterinary school. “He has taken a big load off my mind.”
Health care for zoo animals has improved immeasurably since the Philadelphia Zoo — the oldest in the country — first opened in 1874. For years, according to Hinshaw, it was common for zoo animals, especially for primates, to die from diseases like tuberculosis that they’d catch from humans.
In the years before World War II, he said, zoos started to figure out they could protect animals from germs if they kept them separated from people by glass, rather than bars.
As a result, many animals started living longer and developing problems associated with aging, like heart disease and arthritis, as well as dental issues like broken or infected teeth. (They don’t really suffer from tooth decay like humans do since they don’t eat refined sugars.) But Hinshaw said it wasn’t until the advent of safe anesthetics in the 1970s that many of these issues could be addressed by working on the animals while they’re under sedation. This development sparked a revolution in the care of zoo animals.
Tinkelman said the credit doesn’t go to him, but to the professional vets caring for the animals and spotting the problems.
“The vets are very good at the zoo and they are conscientious and the animals get wonderful care,” he said.
Still, Hinshaw noted, fully anesthetizing a gorilla or a lion is not an exact science, which means that sometimes they wake up, at least partially. Tinkelman, said Hinshaw, works quickly and doesn’t get rattled — even if a potentially deadly creature starts to stir.
That happened a few years back when a lowland silverback gorilla sat up, semi-conscious, in the middle of a procedure. After his heart skipped a beat or two, Tinkelman said he and six or seven other people managed to push the gorilla back down and inject more anesthesia.
A lifelong love of animals and a passion for the educational mission of the zoo have fueled his commitment to the institution.
He’s done some work with police dogs but generally has stayed away from working with pets. Still, for dog and cat owners out there, Tinkelman recommends brushing their teeth daily and having a vet look into their mouths at least once a year.
The trim and fit grandfather of six — who just celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary — is also a fifth-degree black belt in Tang Soo Do, a Korean martial art. He long ago gave up competing but still judges at various martial arts tournaments. About a month ago, he underwent knee-replacement surgery. He’s already back to work, hoping to resume martial-arts practice and also return to the golf course.
Who will keep the animals smiling once he decides it is time to hang up his drill?
“I haven’t picked a successor yet,” he said. “It has been on my mind.”
But he’s got no intention of stopping anytime soon. After all, how many people can say they reach into a lion’s mouth?
“I love it,” he said. “I’ve been very lucky.”