A Dentist with His Practice Inside the Zoo
Myron Finkel is a Park Avenue dentist whose instruments include a wooden mallet, a chisel, a section of pipe and a ripsaw. Such indelicate implements are not for the 250 or so human patients—lawyers, businessmen, advertising and UN people—who pass through his office every month. Dr. Finkel, age 28, keeps them on hand for a very special clientele: Janet the lioness, Patty Cake the gorilla, Panzee the chimpanzee and other zoo animals in need of dental care. Finkel was strolling through the Central Park Zoo one spring day in 1973 and happened to spot a lion with a nasty tooth abscess. “I offered to come in and help. The zoo paid for the hardware—and I’ve been going back whenever I’m needed there.”
A major dental problem among zoo animals is bruxism—nervously grinding their teeth against concrete. “If they grind them down to the pulp,” says Finkel, “infections can lead to brain abscess and to death. I feel I can prolong animals’ lives.” He also does more standard root canal work, treats infected gums, extracts fangs and caps teeth. His most renowned patient has been Patty Cake, who, newborn, almost lost her two front teeth when her mother threw her across the cage. “Patty had been featured in several magazines,” Dr. Finkel explains, “so I figured her teeth should be straightened.”
Finkel’s techniques—like his tools—are improvisations. He uses the pipe to prevent animals from clamping down on his hands. His scalpel is a ripsaw. For knocking out a bear or lion tooth, the mallet and chisel work fine. Anesthesia is a touchy process. “I first zonk the big animals with a dart full of heavy animal anesthetizer, and when they go down I jump in fast and shave the hind leg with my old electric shaver to find a vein. Then I hit them with another anesthetizer, leaving the syringe strapped to the leg. That way, if they stir, I can just turn and squeeze it down a bit more.” He has never been injured, and boasts proudly, “The animals really do try to relate to me.”
Finkel hopes someday to prepare a set of videotaped courses for veterinarians on zoo dentistry, and to organize a worldwide network of zoo dental care. A humorous and easygoing man, Finkel grew up in the tough Red Hook section of Brooklyn. During his years at NYU’s dental school (he graduated in 1971) he traveled to the Middle East and worked on several Israeli kibbutzim.
Finkel, a bachelor, is also a spare-time jazz buff. “I used to be a terrible sax player on the borscht circuit,” he admits. He has recently harmonized a nonpromising career in music with his other love, gardening. “I still have my sax, but now I use it as a planter.”