Watch: National Zoo Lion Gets Dental Checkup - NBC 10 Philadelphia

Watch: National Zoo Lion Gets Dental Checkup

“You could extract every tooth in their mouth, the power of their muscle, they’ll still pop your head like a grape if they wanted to”

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    NEWSLETTERS

    Imagine being so close to a lion that you can stroke his mane, feel his chest rise and fall as he breathes and look deeply into his mouth at his giant teeth. News4’s Wendy Rieger got to do that recently when Luke, the top lion at the National Zoo, had a dental exam. (Published Wednesday, March 1, 2017)

    A dentist from Virginia is sought around the world for his rare specialty: Exotic animals. Recently, News4 got up close to Luke the Lion at the National Zoo in D.C. as veterinary dentist Dr. Barron Hall performed his regular checkup.

    Yes, even lions need to go to the dentist.

    Wild animals need dental work because an unhealthy mouth can make an animal sick. Also, alpha males like Luke can instinctively hide a bad tooth causing them pain because it is a sign of weakness, which can get them killed in the wild.

    Hall, of Vienna, is in demand at zoos across the country and sanctuaries around the world. He's been in the mouth of some fierce beasts.

    Petr David Josek/AP

    “I’ve worked on black bears, grizzly bears, brown bears, pretty much every cat,” Hall said. “A hippo I haven’t done. Polar bear’s on my bucket list.”

    Hall belongs to Veterinarians Without Borders, which provides free healthcare for animals in sanctuaries throughout the world and train locals to care for the animals around them.

    For his cleaning, Luke was put under.

    “Since they’re wild animals, you can’t just go and lift their lips,” Hall said.

    A team of medical technicians monitored Luke’s vital signs and kept the 400-pound carnivore peacefully asleep. Colorful mittens kept his massive paws warm.

    Luke came to the National Zoo when he was a 1-year-old.

    “Luke was brought in to our facility from a facility in South Africa, which means his specific genetic line was not represented in North America at all,” National Zoo big cats curator Craig Saffoe said.

    That gave breeders a fresh gene pool to grow the lion population in the United States, and Luke proved to be a star.

    “He's been an outstanding breeding animal,” Saffoe said. “He’s produced five litters, four of which have all survived. He’s had a great run for us.”

    At 11 years old, Luke is slowing down a bit, though he could live into his 20s.

    Staring into the mouth of a lion, one gains renewed respect for the king of the jungle.

    “You could extract every tooth in their mouth, the power of their muscle, they’ll still pop your head like a grape if they wanted to,” Hall said.

    Luke left the exam with teeth intact and a mouth cleaned and ready to roar.