It isn't every day that a man adopts a tiger, especially the one which comes straight at him, growling. However, Dr. Sushrut Babhulkar -- an orthopaedic surgeon from Nagpur-- not only adopted a very temperamental tiger, Sahebrao, who came roaring at him during their first meeting at the Gorewada Rescue Center, but is also determined to replace one of his damaged paw, with a prosthetic one, so that his adopted tiger can lead a pain-free life.
It was Sahebrao's good fortune that Dr. Babhulkar -- who has never worked with animals before -- decided to visit the rescue center. A brother of a forest guard was Babhulkar's patient and he told the doctor about the 'massive, ill-tempered beast' who was housed at Gorewada Rescue Center. His stories of Sahebrao piqued Dr. Babhulkar's interest and he decided to pay Sahebrao a visit.
Sahebrao, as usual, was in a foul-temper when he walked towards Dr. Babhulkar, on the day of their first meeting. He lifted his injured paw and rested it on the wired fence, and looked straight at Dr. Babhulkar and roared ferociously. Dr. Babhulkar saw his damaged paw and instantly understood that Sahebrao's growls and roars that others often misconstrued as his temper, was nothing more than him groaning in pain.
"Being an orthopaedic surgeon, I have seen amputations in human beings. There is a distinct phenomenon that humans experience especially after a crush injury. When a limb, hand or foot gets crushed, even though we amputate that portion out, the patient keeps feeling that the crushed portion is attached to the body and he/ she keeps experiencing pain. I realized Sahebrao must have been going through something similar." recalled Dr. Sushrut Babhukar.
Another reason Dr. Babhulkar inferred for Sahebrao's pain could be a neuroma, also known as 'pinched nerve' or 'nerve tumor'. Sahebrao had suffered a traumatic injury in April 2012 when poachers outside Tadoba Andhari Tiger Reserve (TATR) had trapped him and his brother. His brother died immediately. However, the then two-year-old Sahebrao was rescued and brought in unconscious. During the incident, three fingers from his paw were injured badly and were later amputated. It was in this paw that Sahebrao still experiences immense pain even after several years.
Dr. Babhulkar said that what 'moved' him most about Sahebrao's condition was how he hopped and limped to go from one place to another. The doctor, who is a wildlife enthusiast, said, "I have seen many tigers in my life and every time it is the same royal walk of a tiger that I find stunning and awe-inspiring. When a tiger passes by, the entire forest stops. And here I was, looking at Sahebrao, who was limping and growling in pain."
"I wanted to give him back his royal walk," he added.
Dr. Babhulkar took a keen liking to the wild animal. The Divisional manager of Maharashtra Animal and Fisheries Science University (MAFSU), Mr. Nandkishore Kale, who along with other veterinary doctors had been supervising Sahebrao's health from an early stage, said, "Dr. Babhulkar was moved by the pain of the tiger... by habit, the tiger must have put his injured paw on the wired fence but Dr. Babhulkar thought that Sahebrao was telling him about his pain. He immediately adopted Sahebrao and gave two lakh rupees for his maintenance."
"He (Sahebrao) definitely recognizes me," said Dr. Babhulkar with conviction. "I visit him once every two or three weeks since I have adopted it...he comes near and I feel he tries to connect. Of course, he is still a wild animal, he doesn't behave like a dog. He doesn't live in a zoo, he stays in a rescue center, full of other wild animals. They are not used to human beings, but maybe he has found some connection with me, or so I feel. I hope it works."
Apart from the visits, since Sahebrao's adoption, Dr. Babhulkar has been working on a mission as well. He calls it 'Mission Sahebrao' which entails putting his dear adopted tiger out of his misery by swapping his damaged paw, with an artificial one. However, the doctor is well aware that it is no mean feat. To begin with, he tells me, no one has tried to use prosthetics on tigers before. Secondly, the doctor is aware that the operation may also put his beloved tiger at life risk.
Dr. Shirish Upadhye of MAFSU, who had previously operated on Sahebrao said, "Doing any surgery on any wildlife is a challenge. Even tranquilization can be difficult. So, in most cases, we do not do it unless it is an emergency." However, recently Dr. Upadhye, along with Dr. Babhulkar and few other doctors of MAFSU took the challenging step, by tranquilizing Sahebrao and taking X-rays of his injured paw as well as his normal paw so that they can reconstruct an artificial paw for him, according to his clinical measurements. Dr. Babhulkar had called this Mission Sahebrao Phase 1 and he was excited when it was completed successfully only a few days ago.
Dr. Upadhye too was relieved that the process went smoothly. He recalled when he and a team of other veterinary doctors initially operated Sahebrao, right after he was rescued from the poachers. "His leg was in such a bad condition that it was advised to amputate it at a higher level. In that case, the tiger would have only had three limps." The doctors, therefore, decided to only remove the three damaged fingers from his paw and keep the rest so that he can walk freely, said Dr. Upadhye. "We were not only successful in saving him, but also managed to keep his entire leg unharmed. "
Dr. Babhulkar is now preparing diligently for phase 2 and 3 of Mission Sahebrao. Phase two is finalizing a master plan for Sahebrao's operation -- What kind of prosthetics to use, how to do the operation etc and the final phase, which is phase 3, is to do the actual operation, which Dr. Babhulkur plans to do by December. However, even after the operation, the doctor knows that there are many factors to consider -- how to do daily dressing, and examine the tiger on a regular basis is just a few of the problems that Dr. Babhulkar, Dr. Upadhye and a team of doctors at MAFSU are looking at.
Of course, they are also getting international help. After Dr. Babhulkar reached out to various veterinarians aboard, several of them got back to him expressing their desire to help Sahebrao and have been closely working with Dr. Babhulkar since. From the University of Leeds, Arizona as well as AV Foundation, Switzerland -- they are all trying to come up with innovative ways to implant a tiger with a prosthetic paw. Dr. Shanti Jha, an orthopaedic Surgeon from Arizona, who has been working with Dr. Babhulkar pointed out, "He is a big cat. Just the logistics to anesthetize and operate in a sterile environment is in itself a challenge." Dr. Jha also added that apart from logistics, they also need funds to cover surgical costs.
Despite the obvious obstacles, doctors from India and abroad have been working really hard for Sahebrao, and Dr. Babhulkar cannot wait to see the day when his majestic, 200 kilos weighing, 8-year-old adopted tiger -- Sahebrao will be pain-free and walk in the royal manner in which tigers are born to walk.