Where the Wild Things Are

UMKC dental hygiene program offers unique opportunity at the Kansas City Zoo


As a dental hygiene student at UMKC, Alissa Sumpter (B.S.D.H. ’22) saw a variety of patients in the school’s dental clinics. But during her last semester, her patient pool expanded to include lemurs, chimpanzees, crocodiles and even her alma mater’s mascot animal, kangaroos. This year, Sumpter was one of the lucky students who took part in the Zoo practicum offered by the Division of Dental Hygiene through a partnership with the Kansas City Zoo.

“Who doesn’t want to work with animals at the zoo?” Sumpter said.

The Zoo practicum is an elective course offered in the spring semester for senior dental hygiene students. Dr. Lorie Holt (B.S.D.H. ’93, M.S.D.H. ’97, Ph.D. ‘20) can attest to the program’s popularity. She is an associate professor, director of the R.D.H. to B.S.D.H. degree program, and interim director of the DHE graduate degree program in the school’s Division of Dental Hygiene. She has also been overseeing been the Zoo practicum for more than 20 years.

“It’s really a wonderful and unique opportunity for our students to explore what it means to care for the oral health of exotic animals,” Holt said. “Just at this year’s Midwest Dental Conference, I had two alumni come up asking about the program, so it really leaves a lasting impression on the students who have the opportunity to participate.”

Sumpter was a natural fit for the program. She has a bachelor’s degree in biology and grew up on a farm with an array of animals: goats, horses, chickens and more. Before she entered the dental hygiene program, she considered a career as a veterinarian.

“I grew up around animals, so I always had an interest in being a vet,” Sumpter said, “but then I realized that I couldn’t deal with the heartbreak of animals passing, so I moved on to dentistry.

” A typical day at the Zoo for Sumpter and her fellow hygiene student, Marissa Kramer (B.S.D.H. ’22), included sitting in on the animal health staff’s morning meeting. Led by Dr. Kirk Suedmeyer, the Zoo’s director of animal health and research, the group discusses the cases for the day. Sumpter and Kramer were key members of the team, discussing the best approaches for the oral health care needs of each day’s patients.

“It was a little daunting at first, but it’s been really great to apply what I’m learning on humans to the animals at the zoo,” Sumpter said. “Although their teeth are different in things like tooth structure, their oral health treatment is very similar to ours.”

Suedmeyer’s idea for a partnership between a dental school and a zoo started in the late 1980s. He was working as a staff veterinarian at the Potawatomi Zoo in South Bend, Indiana, when he had an animal that needed dental care. Suedmeyer reached out to a local dentist who brought along his dental hygienist. It quickly became clear the hygienist didn’t have experience with animals and was concerned about getting bitten.

“I thought, ‘If I ever get the opportunity, I’d like to develop a program that gets students introduced to the field,'” he said. “It doesn’t mean that they’ll go into the veterinary field, but if they’re working in a rural area and a small zoo needs help, they’ll have experience.”

From otters to bat-eared foxes, the animal patients the dental hygiene students see are usually under anesthesia during the exams. Before Sumpter and Kramer get to work on the cleaning, Suedmeyer and his team run through a number of standard procedures for each animal.
“We start the exam by checking to see if there is anything majorly wrong in the animal’s mouth, like an abscess or anything like that, then we proceed with our cleaning,” Sumpter said. “We typically use hand skills with instruments and avoid our waterpower instruments for the safety of the animals.”

On a Wednesday last April, Sumpter and Kramer’s patient was a red ruffed lemur named Molly, a critically endangered species native to Madagascar. Before they started to clean Molly’s teeth, the two students discussed which explorer and scaler tools were the right fit for the formidable teeth of the lemur.

this appointment, Kramer had the primary cleaning responsibilities, with Sumpter attentively assisting. After a thorough inspection of the animal’s gums, Kramer diligently cleaned the tartar buildup and followed up by polishing with a hygiene handpiece.
All the while, Suedmeyer was a fountain of information about the animal, pointing out breeding habits, diet, preferred habitat and unique adaptations. For the red ruffed lemur, that included a surprise reveal of a second tongue, hidden under her primary tongue. The additional tongue helps the lemur get to their favorite delicacy, flower nectar.

According to Suedmeyer, animals in the wild encounter few problems with their teeth. A sore tooth can mean an animal could have trouble eating, and in the wild, that makes it susceptible to other carnivores. “Animals get eaten as they age,” he said. “When an animal doesn’t eat, it becomes weaker, and they get picked off.”

However, in captivity, there’s no culling of the herd. Life expectancy is longer, and that means more time for oral health issues to crop up. Just like humans, the animals also have to watch what they eat.

“We stay away from sugary treats, so that helps our animals a lot,” said Suedmeyer.
Although examinations typically occur at the Zoo’s dedicated animal clinic, a few cases required them to perform their examinations inside of the animal’s exhibit. One such case took them to the chimpanzee enclosure.

“While we were performing our examination, we can hear the rest of the chimpanzees screaming and banging on stuff,” Sumpter said. “That was cool, but also a little bit scary.”

For Sumpter, it’s been special being a part of the team that Suedmeyer has cultivated. The importance of collaboration is a lesson she’ll hold onto.

“I know as a hygienist we’re more of an independent worker, but it’s still very important to rely on teamwork within your dental office,” Sumpter said. “I hope whatever dental office I end up practicing in has a team like the Kansas City Zoo staff, ready and willing to help everyone.”