A Bengal tiger that once worked on the carnival circuit was recovering after undergoing surgery to correct a badly deformed right forelimb.
The tiger named Sulley had been abused as a cub.
Surgeon Jimi Cook said Sulley's condition was comparable to rickets — malnutrition had caused his bones to become deformed. It was increasingly hard for his front legs to support his body, which brought on joint malformations, arthritis and pain.
On Wednesday, three veterinary surgeons at the University of Missouri-Columbia, spent six hours cutting and reorienting his leg bones so that he could eventually walk without limping.
"Our goal was to get his shoulder and forearm in alignment so his paw could hit (the ground) flat," Cook said.
Sulley and four other tiger cubs traveled the fair and carnival circuit, where people would pay as much as $25 to be photographed with them.
When the cubs became too large, they were sold to a New Orleans handler who kept the animals in his car and displayed them in parking lots. Two of the cubs died under his care, and the local chapter of the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals rescued the others in 2004, according to the university.
The tigers were sent to The Wild Animal Sanctuary near Denver, where they continued to grow, and recover, except for Sulley.
Without the surgery, he would probably have been put to sleep within a year, Cook said.
Sulley was driven back to Denver this week and was recovering nicely, said sanctuary executive director Pat Craig.
"He is lying in the sun in a recovery pen," Craig said. "He checked it out a little before sunrise (Thursday), and he went back to sleep."
University officials called the procedure rare and said for the past few years, surgeons there have been studying a technique used in humans to correct similar limb deformities in dogs.
"This is a risky procedure in any animal but deemed to be feasible in Sulley because of his excellent demeanor and his wonderful and attentive caretakers," Derek Fox, assistant professor of small animal surgery, said in a news release.
The University of Missouri-Columbia has worked for years to raise awareness about the endangered status of the university's Bengal tiger mascot and is home to the Mizzou Tigers for Tigers conservation program.