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Dentist targets the root of zoo's problem

| Saturday, Jan. 13, 2007

Scuba diving in a shark tank is usually enough to satisfy most adventure-seekers.

But for Bridgeville dentist Dr. Dave Regine, it didn't even come close.

"I never said I was bright," said Regine, 59, chuckling. "I've had my head in an elephant's mouth, in a tiger's mouth -- you're not bright when you do that."

For more than a decade, Regine -- whose pierced left ear makes him look more like a surfer than a dentist -- has voluntarily braved razor-sharp teeth and bone-crushing jaws to keep some of the world's fiercest predators in top condition at the Pittsburgh Zoo & PPG Aquarium.

On Sunday afternoon, he will perform one of the most dreaded dental procedures on the world's largest land predator: a root canal on a polar bear.

"There aren't that many veterinary dentists in the country, but there are lots of human dentists, and I think Dave is one of the best locally," said Dr. Cindy Stadler, the zoo's director of veterinary services. "He's never charged, and that's a tremendous resource for us, too, because we don't have oodles of money."

Koda -- one of the zoo's two 600-pound brother polar bear cubs in an exhibit that debuted in November -- recently broke the tip of his bottom right canine, which X-rays confirmed is now infected. He's been given antibiotics.

"It's pretty much the same as any other root canal on anybody, even a human," said Regine, who has done root canals on other bears at the zoo, but never a polar bear. "You just clean it out and fill it up."

Tom Klein, a professor of dentistry at Ohio State University who specializes in zoo dentistry, will help Regine, Stadler and two other zoo vets with the root canal.

The size of polar bear teeth is usually the biggest challenge in root canals, said Wynona Shellabarger, head vet for the Toledo Zoo, which coordinates the polar bear species survival plan for the Association of Zoos and Aquariums. She has assisted in six polar bear root canals in the past decade.

This is the Pittsburgh Zoo's first procedure on a polar bear.

"The length of the tooth from crown tip to root tip can be five or six inches, and it's curved, so it's not just a straight shot in," Shellabarger said. "We have to be creative with the instruments we use -- instruments developed for dogs and cats and humans aren't quite long enough, so we often have to develop tools ourselves."

The Association of Zoos and Aquariums has no record of any full-time dentist employed in its 214 accredited zoos, said spokesman Steve Feldman.

"Most zoos do not employ their own dentist," he said. "However, it seems to be that when there is a need for a particular kind of dentistry, maybe a root canal or taking a tooth out for one reason or another, zoos tend to have some good contacts with local dentists."

Regine got his start in zoo dentistry by volunteering to don scuba gear and help clean the zoo's old shark tank. When the veterinarians discovered he was a dentist, they recruited him in 1995 to help extract an infected tusk from Savannah, a now-7,600-pound African elephant.

"I was kind of intrigued just to do that, just to be that close to the elephant," Regine said. "Being an animal lover, it was the greatest thing."

Since then, Regine has pulled an alligator tooth, done root canals on lions, tigers and bears -- even the wood-chomping teeth of a beaver named Mister Twister.

Sticking his hands in the mouths of anesthetized predators doesn't make him nervous -- Regine said he fully trusts the zookeepers -- but he did get an adrenaline rush when a tiger he was helping return to its cage after surgery began to stir before the door was closed.

"He got up, and we got out -- fast," Regine said.

Regine is always on call for the zoo animals and willingly grants weekend appointments. He's even rescheduled human appointments for the animals.

"I've had some patients bumped for a gorilla," he said, adding that his patients were very understanding.

Regine's fiancee, Tina Collavo, is his dental assistant for both animals and humans. She's worked at his practice for 21 years and has learned to love adventure through their association.

"He's very outgoing. Life is always just fun with him," she said. "Sometimes too much. I'm not a real swimmer, but he got me scuba diving, he got me in the shark tank."

Regine also has gone underwater with four of the zoo's elephants to create the world's first underwater film of the mammoth animals swimming. He set the video to music, and it's been borrowed by zoos as far away as Germany and Japan.

"When (the elephants) came down the moat, there was a 'Boom! Boom!,'" Regine said. "The first thing I thought was, this is like Jurassic Park. And I was sitting there with my camera, and I was thinking, maybe this isn't such a good idea."

Though most of the animals perhaps would just as soon bite or crush him as thank him for the free dental care and camera work, the sea lions rewarded him more appropriately after he examined their teeth.

"It's the first time I ever kissed something that had bigger whiskers than I do."

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