When veterinarians noticed the 90 lb shark was having some trouble swimming due to an abnormality in her spine. Spinal deformities have been recorded in approximately 35% of Sand Tiger Sharks that are in captive care. After lots of research and analyzed samples, it was determined that this is caused by a mineral deficiency – more specifically a lack of vitamin C and Zinc. This led to the discovery of the need for more biomechanical precautions to be taken with the husbandry of these animals.
For the Sand Tiger Sharks who have this deficiency and have been in captivity for a long period of time like Stella, this life saving surgery may be the answer. Stella had reached a point with her orthopedic issue where feeding was becoming an issue in addition to her ability to swim properly. At that point her care team called on the Bienville Orthopedic Specialists in order to save her.
Orthopedic surgeon Dr. Joseph Cox is known for liking to be the first when it comes to trying new and innovative procedures with his human patients. And so Dr. Cox decided to accept the challenge of trying to help Stella by performing the first back surgery of it’s kind on a shark.
There were 2 main challenges that Dr. Cox faced: 1.) “It’s about as close to operating on an alien that you can get. Their physiology is way different from humans so there were a lot of things that had to be taken into consideration,” Cox said. And 2.) They had to keep the surgical site dry while still keeping her gills wet so that she could breathe during the operation. They made an apparatus that would allow the water to flow over her gills while on the operating table.
A team of about a dozen specialists from Mississippi and all over the country worked on Stella for two hours. In order to restore the integrity of Stella’s spine, plates and screws were put in place in order to stabilize the spine and restore it’s rigidity so that Stella can swim properly without any further degradation of the spine.
Post op Stella is doing great in her recovery tank and she is eating again. The team is looking forward to getting Stella back into the Ocean’s Exhibit as soon as she is ready.