Innovations Save Life Of Candy, The Harbor Seal

February 08, 2006

An innovative operation by a veterinarian and an invention by a marine mammalogist have saved the life of Candy, a 26 year-old harbor seal that resides at the Oregon Coast Aquarium. During a capture for a blood draw last year, Candy accidentally bit the hoop part of the net being used to capture her and broke her lower left jaw bone behind the canine tooth.

“I was afraid to say it out loud, but I just knew the jaw was broken,” said Judy Tuttle, the Aquarium’s Curator of Marine Mammals. “Normally it’s a death sentence for a seal to get a broken jaw,” according to Tuttle. The seal was taken to Steven R. Brown, DVM, the Aquarium’s veterinarian, where he stabilized her jaw bone.

Dr. Brown first tried the traditional method of wiring the jaw but it didn’t work. Her teeth are very worn and wouldn’t hold the wires in place, so he tried another method using an acrylic bridge. “The acrylic is almost like an epoxy,” said Tuttle. “An acrylic powder is mixed with liquid and when the two are combined, dries hard. Tuttle described the process of building the acrylic bridge; “Dr. Brown put the wires around her jawbone, then put the acrylic over it. He tapped the powder, added liquid and kept doing the process until it was built up enough to cover her teeth.” She was eating by the second day after the surgery,” said Tuttle, who is very pleased with the outcome. “When the bridge comes off, her teeth will be intact.”

The bridge has been in place since late January of 2005. Tuttle said the jaw has taken so long to heal because of Candy’s age. Harbor seals normally live to be about 25 years old in the wild; Candy will be 27 years old in July. The healing process takes longer in older animals.

In addition to the innovative surgery, two other innovations enabled mammalogists to x-ray and anesthetize the seal to monitor the healing process. The Aquarium’s Senior Marine Mammalogist, Ken Lytwyn, created an X-ray cartridge holder that was the correct size for a harbor seal. “I found this X-Ray device in storage and thought I could find a way to use it,” said Lytwyn, who adapted the device to accommodate his need to observe the harbor seal’s injury. He went further and developed an anesthesia chamber for seals and sea lions.

“Ken’s inventions just make it so much easier to anesthetize an animal for surgery and monitor their healing,” said Tuttle. “Because the animals have a dive reflex, they can hold their breath for as much as 20 minutes at a time. This makes an exhausting ordeal for humans and the animal as it is anesthetized with conventional methods. With a chamber, the animal goes under much faster and it’s less stressful.” The animal is given an injection to calm it first, and then put into the chamber where it continues to breathe normally.

The latest X-ray, taken last Tuesday morning, revealed that Candy has healed. In the next few weeks, she will again be taken to Dr. Brown’s clinic to remove the acrylic bridge from her mouth. Tuttle believes the cold water that Candy lives in helped control swelling and pain. “This is such a save,” said Tuttle, “I am extremely pleased that we are able to keep her alive. I’m pretty proud of her and Dr. Brown!”