400-pound tiger has surgery to remove giant hairball
While Ty reclined drowsily in the back of Vernon Yates' white pickup, about a dozen reporters and photographers stood less than 2 feet from his open cage, snapping photos of him – and of themselves, standing within inches of the 400-pound Siberian tiger.
The tiger looked thin, and the man who'd been caring for the 17-year-old cat since he was a cub worried if Ty would make it through the day.
Inside BluePearl Veterinary Partners' hospital, located in an industrial area near the St. Pete-Clearwater International Airport, a team of surgeons and veterinary technicians were getting ready for a two-hour emergency surgery to remove what turned out to be a four-pound hairball from Ty's stomach – something that probably built up over time as he groomed himself.
“You have to consider that his tongue is everything,” said Yates, who runs Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation in Seminole. “It's his comb everything.”
Yates noticed something was wrong about two weeks ago. Ty was sluggish and not eating. Yates hand-fed him for days, but he could only get him to swallow three to five pounds of meat a day, rather than the 10 to 15 pounds he normally eats.
Monday, Yates took Ty to the vet.
Neither ultrasounds nor X-rays provided a clear image of what was in Ty's stomach. So veterinarian Brian Luria broke out an endoscope.
“It looked like a giant ball of hair,” he said. “So I grabbed a piece of it, and I could see it was hair.”
The same kind of hairball all cats get, only too big for Ty to cough up.
In the wild, a big cat in Ty's situation wouldn't have made it, Luria said. “It would die, I suppose.”
Usually, veterinarians use an endoscope and grasping tools to pull hairballs from cats' throats when they can't cough them up themselves. In Ty's case, that would have entailed breaking the hairball into pieces and pulling it out bit by bit and would have taken a week, said Mike Reems, a veterinary surgeon on the team that worked on Ty.
“It's a tedious process,” he said.
Surgery wasn't simple, either.
The team had to heavily anesthetize the tiger and work on him in a facility more geared toward dogs and cats. More than half a dozen staffers and surgeons helped prepare him for the operation.
“I think the challenge compared to our usual patients is the size of the opening in the stomach,” said Reems. “It makes it a challenge from a closure standpoint.”
Eventually, the team was able to pull the hairball out of Ty's stomach piece by softball-sized piece. Wednesday night, he was back home, “waking up slowly, but surely,” Yates said.
One of nearly 20 big cats at Yates' sanctuary, Ty is the only descendant of Hobbes, his first tiger, the trapper said.
“This cat means more to me than any cat I have,” he said.
The tiger didn't seem to mind all of the news cameras crowded around his cage Wednesday. Ty occasionally looked up at the paparazzi surrounding him but then would put his head down, apparently indifferent to all the attention.
“He's a cool cat,” Luria said.