Zoo Vet Recovering From Tiger Bite

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Dr. Doug Armstrong: 'I'm actually pretty lucky'

By Joe Foreman, Editor

One week after being a bitten by a tiger at the Henry Doorly Zoo, Dr. Doug Armstrong is recovering from his injuries at his home in Glenwood.

Armstrong, a veterinarian at the zoo for the past 23 years, was bitten on the right forearm last Wednesday while performing a routine medical examination on an unconscious Malaysian tiger. Armstrong sustained multiple puncture wounds to his arm and was transported by ambulance to Creighton University Medical Center where he received treatment for three days before being released.

“We think the cat got me three times,” Armstrong said Monday. “With four canines biting down, that would be 12 punctures. I’m actually pretty lucky. There’s no damage to major nerves, arteries or muscles. There were two or three big lacerations, probably about two or three inches long, but that was probably caused by me pulling away.”

Armstrong has already undergone two surgeries and will also face some rehabilitation before returning to his job as the zoo’s chief veterinarian.

The 18-month-old, 200-pound tiger had been anesthetized prior to the incident and apparently bit Armstrong out of reflex. The tiger had just been weighed and was being transported back into his cage when Armstrong was bitten. Several technicians and zookeepers were assisting with the handling of the animal, Armstrong said.

“With all of this handling, there had been no response from him. He had stayed flat and limp like they’re supposed to,” Armstrong said. “They brought him back over to the cage door. His head was coming in first. The keeper that was in with me got a hold of his neck. I reached down for his front legs. The cat was on his side so my arm was right in front of his mouth. I can’t really say what stimulated him. It could be that I brushed his whiskers. It could be because I grabbed his leg.”

Armstrong praised the work of his co-workers, who made a quick assessment of the situation and saw to it that the tiger was immediately secured in its cage.

“The first thing we had to do is secure the cat,” Armstrong said. “We didn’t know at the moment if this was going to escalate and he was going to struggle some more and hurt somebody else.

“The cat was brought into the cage and everyone got out. The cat did try to roll upright just briefly, but then he just laid down and was flat out.”

Over the years, Armstrong has done hundreds of “big cat immobilizations.” On this particular day, he and his co-workers were using a relatively new combination of drugs.

“We’ve done about 25 big cats – lions, jaguars and tigers – with this combination,” he said. “It’s not exactly experimental because all of the drugs had been used before, but this particular combination of drugs hasn’t been used before in cats.”

The new drug regiment, Armstrong said, was proving to be successful because of the minimal side effects it has on the animals. He does expect dosages and the procedures for administering the drugs to be reviewed as a result of Wednesday’s incident.”

His extensive work with tigers and big cats has earned Armstrong national and international acclaim with his zoo colleagues across the world.

“In zoo medicine, you can’t specialize in anything, but you do get kind of a reputation for working with a particular species. I’ve had an opportunity to do a lot of work with tigers,” he said. “We’ve got a big tiger collection in Omaha and a lot of the stuff I’ve done overseas in Asia has been associated with tigers.”

Despite his injury, Armstrong said he’ll have no fears about returning to work, once he’s given a green light from his doctors.

“I used to say it’s a lot more dangerous to be in private practice, working with those fluffy poodles and horses,” Armstrong said. “I got bit worse working on poodles and kicked worse working on horses than I ever did at the zoo.

“We are safety conscious. We approach all of these animals as dangerous and we take a lot of precautions. This was just a bizarre thing.”