Nyan htoo’s life had already been saved once.

A monastery in Burma had rescued the Asiatic black bear, along with his brother, when they were both cubs set to be sold illegally in China.

But a curious phenomenon began happening to Nyan htoo, the monks noticed: The bear’s tongue would swell to grotesquely large proportions. Despite an operation in 2016, it continued to grow, protruding from his mouth.

By June, Nyan htoo’s tongue had enlarged to the point that it lolled out of the side of his mouth, weighing down his head. When Nyan htoo climbed a tree, it thudded against branches; when he walked around his enclosure, the elongated pink mass dragged along the ground.

“It was continually being injured against his teeth and causing him to rest his head on his cage bars to support the additional weight,” researchers said.

At the time, those who cared for Nyan htoo didn’t know what was causing his condition, but they knew they had to intervene if they wanted to make his life, well . . . bearable.


Nyan htoo before his surgery. (Courtesy the University of Edinburgh)

And so, in early October, a team of veterinary surgeons — led by Heather Bacon of the University of Edinburgh’s Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies and Caroline Nelson, a veterinary nurse at the Animals Asia Bear Rescue Centre in Vietnam — traveled to Burma, officially called Myanmar, to operate on the 18-month-old bear.

In a surgery that lasted more than four hours, the specialists removed more than six-and-a-half pounds of tissue from Nyan htoo’s mouth.

“This was a really unusual medical condition — never before seen in any species of bear — but we weren’t about to give up on Nyan htoo,” Nelson said in a statement. “Now he will be able to eat much more comfortably, sleep in more natural positions and move more freely for the rest of his life.”

The team believes Nyan htoo had a condition called elephantiasis, in which a person (or, in this case, an animal) experiences swelling of body parts to the point of disfiguration. The mosquito-borne condition, also known as lymphatic filariasis, is common in certain populations of the world, including Burma.

The World Health Organization categorizes lymphatic filariasis as a “neglected tropical disease,” which covers ailments largely isolated to developing countries. In 2000, the WHO started a global campaign to eliminate the condition; since then, numerous countries, including Tonga, China, Cambodia, South Korea and Vanuatu, have eradicated lymphatic filariasis as a public health problem.


Nyan htoo after his surgery. (Courtesy University of Edinburgh)

Bacon, the veterinarian from Scotland, said their team hopes to continue working in Burma to improve animal welfare. For one bear, they’ve already made a difference: Photos of Nyan htoo post-surgery show him playing with his brother again, now unburdened.

“Thanks to the enthusiasm and compassion of all involved in this uniquely collaborative project, we have been able to make a tangible improvement in the quality of Nyan htoo’s life,” Bacon said.

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