Veterinarians and assistants perform surgery Thursday on an endangered snow leopard.
Things outside the Sun Valley Animal Center looked like business as usual Thursday afternoon, unless you noticed a compact car's license plate that read: ZUDOC.
Inside, Dr. Rhonda Aliah, a veterinarian from Idaho Falls' Tautphaus Park Zoo, paced around the operating room, leaning in to observe the surgical procedure under way on the zonked-out Asian snow leopard named Panja. The 94-pound feline was delivered to the specialized care animal hospital south of Ketchum for what should have been a "routine" hip replacement surgery.
While Dr. Randy Acker worked with daughter/vet Maggie assisting, Aliah moved in and out attentively between vet technicians Denise Young and Eszter Smith.
She intermittently asked questions, updated onlookers, stroked Panja's face and shared tidbits about the 6-year-old cat's charm, personality and, most important to the species, his prowess. Those endearing aspects that made this endangered cat even more special to his zoo family, many of whom stood outside the operating theater like anxious parents.
Unfortunately, the month-old limp that preceded the X-ray that indicated Panja was suffering from hip dysplasia was not simply an injury. Not long into the procedure, Acker discovered a tennis-ball sized tumor embedded in the tissue and hidden under the muscle.
Crestfallen, the question then was whether or not to proceed. Panja was on loan from the Omaha Zoo to breed with an Idaho Falls female to perpetuate the species. Aliah made a few calls and conducted an informal poll: "If this was your pet, what would you do?" Aliah's son, Jason Davis, who had accompanied the group to help with the nearly 100 pound cat was the first to chime in to fight for Panja's life.
Acker reasoned to go ahead with the procedure as planned—the cat was young and strong, and, he was able to remove most of the tumor, which should alleviate any immediate pain Panja was having. The rest of the observers unanimously voted to continue.
Meanwhile, a pathologist from St. Luke's Wood River Medical Center stopped in to take a sample of the tumor for testing.
Zoo supervisor Linda Beard, who is so enamored of the cats her personal email includes the words snow and leopard, said the last male cat the zoo had lived to be 19, "and he was just terrible," she said affectionately. "He would swipe at anyone who came by. But this guy is the best. He has an amazing personality."
But he's also among the best in terms of conformation and health. He has fathered highly coveted cubs, one, Sarani, was delivered to a zoo in Chicago this time last year.
A website about the cats had this to say about the beautiful rarities: "wary and elusive to a magical degree, and so well camouflaged in the places it chooses to lie that one can stare straight at it from yards away and fail to see it. Yet the snow leopard's talent for invisibility has not kept it safely out of the sights of hunters, who continue to kill the cat for its coat of pale misty gray, with black rosettes that are clouded by the depth of the rich fur."
The snow leopard (Panthera uncia) lives in the mountains of Central Asia. It is rare and secretive, and inhabits a harsh, remote environment. Scientists have pieced together a remarkably detailed understanding of the cat's biology and the factors that threaten its survival, according to the Snow Leopard Trust.
Among those things are the same things that threaten most diminishing species: poaching and over development of their once remote Himalayan habitat.
Zoo vet tech Ali Holderman said losing Panja would be a significant blow to the entire species survival plan, but even more heartbreaking because of his character.
"He's got such a great personality, so placid and sweet. You get really attached to these guys," she said. The bottom line would be "quality of life over quantity. We will do what's best for him."
The installation of the ball and joint hip implants donated by BioMedtrix was nearing a successful end when Acker's brother Scott delivered the news that a preliminary report on the tumor was in.
The collective breath in the room deflated with word that it was a synovial cell sarcoma—a malignant cancer.
Beard tearfully handled the news and began making plans to get him back to the comforts of his Idaho Falls den.
Radiation and chemotherapy are not options for wild animals because sedation would be required for most procedures, Holderman explained.
Though a second opinion on the pathology was ordered, Acker said the initial report suggests that the cancer is the type that won't metastasize in the lungs, which is good, but would most likely return.
"I feel like we've been able to make him more comfortable," he said. "It's just an odd and unfortunate thing."