The endodontist and the polar bear: Two passions merge through zoo dentistry

Endodontist Dr. Edmund Kwan says, "Bringing relief from pain and infection is what we do, whether it's in an animal or a human. ... In dentistry, we all make a great living and should put something back into our community."

Dr. Edmund Kwan emphasizes he is "just trying to help out," but to numerous animals throughout the Seattle area, Dr. Kwan is nothing more than a lifesaver.

Dr. Kwan and his team at his endodontic practice in Tukwila, Wash., just south of Seattle, volunteer their time and expertise as dental consultants to the Woodland Park Zoo and the Seattle Aquarium in Seattle, the Point Defiance Zoo and Aquarium in Tacoma, and the Cougar Mountain Zoo in Issaquah. Some of Dr. Kwan's latest work was helping out Boris the Polar Bear, who was suffering from an abscess. The Tacoma News-Tribune documented Dr. Kwan's endodontic work on Boris, and you can see some of the amazing photos from Point Defiance by clicking here.

"You could tell that the animal's muzzle was swollen and his gum was draining," Dr. Kwan said. "Once Boris was sedated, we could see the abscess and we were able to help him."

And just how does one help a polar bear with a bad tooth?

"We knew Boris wouldn't mind if we accessed the tooth from the front, and that was easy to do, so we did," Dr. Kwan said. "Now he’s walking around with a big silver filling and he’s not in pain."

Boris joins a long list of animals that have been helped by Dr. Kwan, including gorillas, tigers, sea otters, wolves, and a hyena, which really made an impression on Dr. Kwan.

"The hyena is just a completely different kind of animal," he explained. "It has a head that looks like a bear and body like a big dog."

And what's the biggest challenge of working on animals?

"The principles are very much the same as they are if I’m working on a human, but a lot of animal teeth are much bigger than human teeth," Dr. Kwan explained. "Often, there aren't instruments that are big enough, so we often have to wing it and make things work. Figuring that out is a challenge, but it's also fun."

Dr. Kwan was recruited into zoo dentistry by his friend Dr. James McGraw, one of the pioneers of zoo dentistry who happened to also be on the board of the zoo in Seattle.

"I mentioned to him in passing that if he ever needed any help, just to let me know," Dr. Kwan chuckled. "When he asked me, I was thrilled. I’m able to help animals of all kinds, including rare and endangered animals. It's a thrill and an honor for me. Who gets to touch a polar bear? I'm very fortunate to be able to help."

When talking to Dr. Kwan, one can sense two passions coming together when he performs zoo dentistry ... his love for animals and his enjoyment of giving back to the community.

"Bringing relief from pain and infection is what we do, whether it's in an animal or a human," Dr. Kwan said. "In dentistry, we all make a great living and should put something back into our community. The local zoos need support and this is something that I can do."

OTHER LINKS: Dr. Kwan's practice

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