dental students work on gorilla named Cecil
Jamie Rhodes  /  AP
Dr. Thomas J. Clark, left, guides University of Louisville Dentistry School seniors Tori Sandoval, center right, and Nicole Gordon, right, through a dental exam on Cecil, a Western Lowland gorilla, as associate vet Zoli Gyimesi watches at the Louisville Zoo in Louisville, Ky., on Wednesday.
updated 1/26/2006 5:54:25 PM ET 2006-01-26T22:54:25

Cecil, like many 7-year-olds, has to be carried to the dentist: It took three zookeepers and some anesthesia to bring the 130-pound Western Lowland gorilla in for a checkup.

Cecil snoozed as his teeth were cleaned, scraped and examined for problems Wednesday. The treatment Cecil received is part of a course at the University of Louisville that brings in future "people dentists" to examine the zoo's animals.

"We don't know of any other program in this country that's like it," said Dr. Thomas Clark, a dentist and professor at the university who started the course, now in its seventh year. "I guess it's just off-the-wall enough to appeal to people."

The class is the most popular elective at the dentistry school, Clark said. Students are brought in to work on ferrets, tigers, lizards and even elephants.

Lauren Millican, a 23-year-old dental hygiene student from Lexington, helped prevent the spread of bacteria in Cecil's mouth by scaling, a process in which gum tissue is pulled back and the tooth is scraped.

"I love animals; this is a chance to be up close," Millican said Wednesday.

Many city zoos get help from professionals who volunteer their time to care for animals. Clark, a dentist who works mostly with people, had been doing free dental work on animals at the Louisville Zoo since the late 1970s.

Clark started showing photos of his work with animals to his university students, and many asked if they could tag along on his next zoo trip.

Clark said he saw an opportunity when officials at the zoo asked him how he could do more preventative care, such as annual checkups and cleanings.

The class shows students how the basics they learned in dental school can apply to animals, especially primates such as apes and orangutans.

"We are primates," Clark said. "What we see in these guys is sort of what you'd see in a human."

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