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Beluga Whale Feeling Fine After Surgeons Remove Lesion from Jaw

July 11, 1986

APPLE VALLEY, Minn. (AP) _ Big Mouth, an 1,800-pound beluga whale recovering from pioneering surgery to remove a lesion from his jaw was returned today to his display tank at the Minnesota zoo, doctors and zoo officials said.

″He looks real good,″ said Ron Tilson, the zoo’s acting director of biological programs. ″The wound itself is hardly noticeable. If you didn’t know and if you couldn’t see the stitches, you’d hardly know (surgery was performed).″

Tilson said Big Mouth was in good shape today, but has not been interested in eating fish so far this morning.

Dr. Lawrence Marentette, one of the three surgeons who performed the procedure Thursday, said the chances of the animal dying were about 50-50.

″The tension was very high, mainly because we were afraid we were going to kill him,″ Marentette said.

On Thursday night, zoo officials reported that Big Mouth had eaten 20 pounds of fish, roughly half his normal daily ration, and was feeling so well that his mate had been placed in the holding tank with him.

Marentette said the next several days will be critical to the animal’s recovery at the zoo, which is located in a Twin Cities suburb. Based on experience with dolphins, the incision could open in three to five days, creating a high risk of a fatal infection, he said.

Big Mouth’s surgeons reinforced their incision with multiple layers of stainless steel wires in the hope it will not open, he said.

Besides Marentette, a specialist in surgery of facial bones, the surgical team included Dr. Norman Berlinger, an ear, nose and throat surgeon and cancer specialist at the University of Minnesota, and Dr. Arnold Leonard, head of pediatric surgery at the university.

All three physicians contributed their services for the two-hour, $100,000 operation. Drugs and equipment also were donated. The removal of the lesion, which had bothered Big Mouth for more than two years, was the first time such surgery had been performed on a marine mammal, said Marentette.

He said the decision to perform the surgery - and to have it performed by people doctors, rather than veterinarians - was made by Frank Wright, head veterinarian at the zoo.

″What we did was apply the principles we would use in humans to the whale, knowing those don’t work 100 percent of the time in a human,″ said Marentette. ″That’s what we had to offer, so we did what we thought was best.″

Big Mouth was hoisted onto a specially-built operating table in a holding tank, which was drained for the two-hour operation. To remove the lesion, two of the whale’s teeth were extracted. The jaw was then reconstructed and flaps of skin pulled in layers to cover the removed tissue.

Wright said some ″very knowledgeable people″ had estimated Big Mouth had a less than 20 percent chance of getting off the operating table alive.

″I’m elated with the job the surgeons did,″ said Wright. ″I’m real pleased. I think the prospects are real good right now.″

Most of the information used to plan Big Mouth’s surgery was based on dolphins, Marentette said. He said the only information that could be found on beluga whale anatomy was a translation of a Russian book.

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