That time Creighton dentists gave a leopard a root canal in downtown Omaha

Aug 07, 2020 By Micah Mertes

Fun fact: Creighton's dental school has a bit of a reputation for forming pioneers in the field of wild-animal dentistry.

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Whoa! I squealed and jumped, everybody jumped. The leopard, he was kind of waking up. So the zoo guys came in and gave him more sedative.

Peggy Grennan BA'76, MS'98
Two dentists operate on a leopard
Creighton dentist Charles Meyer, right, performs a root canal on an Amur leopard in his downtown dental office, circa 1970.

Did you hear about the time the Omaha zoo and two Creighton dentists snuck a sedated leopard into a downtown office building for a Sunday morning root canal?

This was around 1970. Lee Simmons, HON'93, was Henry Doorly Zoo director at the time, and he had a problem — a big cat in dire need of dental care. He reached out to Creighton-educated dentists Newton Kelley, DDS'64, and Charles Meyer, BS'49, DDS'53 — the University's chair of Community and Preventative Dentistry at the time. 

For years, Meyer and Kelley were the zoo's go-to guys for all things animal dentistry. They filled cavities for Casey the gorilla. They once brought a sun bear to the dental school for a procedure, Simmons says. (Alas, we couldn't find photos of either event.)

"Other than simply pulling a tooth," Simmons says, "animal dentistry was not something they taught in vet school. We had never done that kind of work. Chuck and Newt ultimately taught us how to do dental work on the animals." 

Meyer and Kelley are both deceased and thus couldn't share tales of their many zoological feats. But Simmons remembers them well, particularly the day the leopard got a root canal.

(I cold-called Simmons on a Tuesday afternoon, and he recounted the experience in great detail. To my question of, "Would you like to talk about that time five decades ago when you took a leopard to the dentist's office," he responded with an amused, "Sure, why not.")

"He had a broken tooth," Simmons says of the patient in question, an Amur leopard. "It was infected, and we needed to go in and remount the nerve canal."

Meyer's office was on the 11th floor of the Medical Arts Building (where the First National Bank Tower is now). They got permission from the building manager to perform the surgery, but made sure to do it on a Sunday, when the rest of the building was empty. 

"We had the animal in a big box labeled 'equipment' and smuggled it up the elevator," Simmons says. "Then we put the leopard in the chair like you would a regular patient."

Meyer's daughter Peggy Grennan, BA'76, MS'98, worked with her father at the time and assisted in the surgery. 

"The cat was so beautiful, oh my goodness," says Grennan, who went on to become a teacher and principal in Omaha. In all the time she worked with her father, no one day stands out more in her memory. She especially remembers this moment ... 

"At one point during the surgery, all of a sudden I felt something on my rear end and thought, 'well, that's not good.'"

She looked down to see a big paw wrapping ’round her behind.

"Whoa! I squealed and jumped, everybody jumped. The leopard, he was kind of waking up. So the zoo guys came in and gave him more sedative."

The anesthetic they used in those days, Simmons says, left much to be desired. Animal sedatives have since improved markedly. 

The surgery was filmed and this small scare captured. For years, Meyer showed the footage to Creighton dental students. When Grennan herself later attended Creighton, she'd regularly get stopped on campus — "Were you in a video doing surgery on a leopard?"

"I was like, ‘yeah, uh huh, that was me,’" Grennan says. 

What became of the video, no one knows. Inquiries to the zoo, the University and the dental school turned up no footage. (Incidentally, if anyone knows the location of this lost cinematic treasure, please contact

But the tale lives on. "Yes, I've heard the story over the years," says Kim McFarland, DDS, chair of Community and Preventative Dentistry. It should also be noted that the dental school has a bit of a reputation for forming pioneers in the field of wild-animal dentistry. 

Peter Emily, DDS'59, is so renowned for his work in the field he got a tremendous profile in The New Yorker a few years back. According to the feature, Emily "has treated polar bears, Siegfried and Roy’s tigers and a black-footed ferret whom he fitted with a gold tooth."

Emily also invented his own dental tools to perform a hyena root canal, developed a line of toothbrushes for cats and dogs, and helped invent a method for straightening birds' beaks. 

Never let it be said that Creighton dentists aren't prepared for anything this wild world throws at them.