Does Superman Have Wisdom Teeth?

Recently I was asked a very serious question: “Knowing, as we do, that Superman is an alien from the planet Krypton who exhibits superpowers when exposed to the yellow sun of Earth, and if the planet Krypton had not blown up, what superpowers would humans exhibit if they were to travel there?”

I say this is a serious question because it was posed to me by my fifteen-year-old son who, at the time, didn’t find it amusing in the least bit. In fact, the question came at the end of a long and very thoughtful analysis of the short story he’d just read for his English class.

I couldn’t actually figure out how the thoughts connected, but I’m sure they did. He’s very smart. He was also shaking off anesthesia, which might explain why a normally fairly rational kid was sounding a little loopy.

It is extremely difficult to understand the rapid string of words spewing out of the mouth of a post-op teenager with swollen chipmunk cheeks and a face mask.

Last week my son hit a developmental milestone, recommended by his dentist who looked at the latest x-ray of his mouth and condemned his wisest and most thoroughly impacted third set of molars to extraction. In the interest of preserving the results of a great deal of orthodontic work and avoiding a whole lot of future pain, we agreed.

We’ve been enormously fortunate that this is the first surgical procedure either of our children has had to undergo, and also that recovery, though not painless, has been pretty smooth and steady. I’m glad we got it done early, because the list of all the problems potentially caused by keeping your wisdom teeth is long and significantly scarier than the also pretty substantial list of potential problems of removing them. It turns out only about 2% of Americans over the age of 65 still have them.

Having too many teeth crammed into your mouth can be a serious problem, as we now know it was for fellow mammal and overlarge superstar Jumbo the elephant. Captured at only four years old after his mother was killed by hunters, Jumbo lived in London for twenty-two years where he delighted children by giving rides to scores of them on his enormous back. In 1882, much to the chagrin of the elephant-loving English public, Jumbo was sold to P.T. Barnum, allegedly because the elephant was getting a little hard to handle.

He wasn’t as large as Barnum claimed, but researchers say Jumbo wasn’t done growing by the time he died, and he might well have made it there. By Oliver Ditson & Co. – Library of Congress: Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Touted as the largest elephant ever to live by the greatest exaggerator who ever lived, Jumbo was a hit in America as well, but there was a problem. By day he was a gentle giant, but by night, he became kind of a ferocious beast.

It wasn’t until a couple years ago that researchers began to understand why. They looked at the bones and teeth of the deceased pachyderm and discovered that 19th century elephant husbandry wasn’t the best. Jumbo’s diet consisted of grasses, hay, and oats. Sometimes also coins and toys and sticky buns from his adoring fans, not to mention the whiskey that was meant to calm him down when he became too agitated.

What was lacking in his diet were the necessary twigs and barks that would have worn down his teeth had he lived as a wild elephant. This kind of roughage would have worn down his teeth and made room for new backup teeth to emerge and replace them. Without that process, the poor thing ended up with a tremendous toothache from the pressure of the new teeth pushing against the old.

What I picture when I think about performing oral surgery on the biggest elephant who ever lived. photo credit: wuestenigel Miniature people cleaning teeth on white backgroudn via photopin (license)

Jumbo died tragically only a few years after coming to America, but even if Barnum’s people had understood the source of the aggression problem they’d have had a hard time solving it. There were shockingly few oral and maxillofacial surgeons operating on elephants in late 19th century America. It might even be safe to assume that’s pretty much a super-duper sub-specialty kind of thing even today.

Fortunately, in 21st century America, it’s not too difficult to find one willing to work with human patients. My son was treated by a wonderful surgeon. The procedure was over pretty quickly without complications or whiskey, though I imagine that might have led to similar superman-themed questions.

He’s doing well, but at this point, I do want to note that this post was written not only with permission from my wisdom-toothless son, but at his insistence. Because even though he realizes he was pretty drugged up when he asked, he’d really like to know the answer to his question and he’d love to hear your thoughts.

Fat Guy-Sized Footprints in the Sands of Time

The morning of March 22, 1882 dawned crisp and clear as a grief-stricken woman followed a slow procession from the London Zoological Gardens to St. Katherine’s Dock. She carried a mug of beer as a small goodbye token for the gentle giant who would depart that day.

After nearly seventeen years in London, Jumbo the elephant was beginning his trans-Atlantic journey to join Barnum & Bailey’s famous show. Jumbo enjoyed his beer,  and though it was a little bit of a struggle (likely because he’d heard that P.T. Barnum had a strict policy against inebriated elephants), allowed himself to be crated and taken to a boat from which he would later be placed onto the large ocean vessel, Assyrian Monarch.

Werbung von Barnum und Bailey
Werbung von Barnum und Bailey (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Thousands of fans waved and cheered him, causing Jumbo to become agitated, shifting his weight back and forth, the fortunately heavily ballasted boat swaying right along with him. This marked the end of a battle for the English public which had been outraged over the Zoo’s sale of Jumbo to P.T. Barnum. The February announcement of the sale was followed by a huge surge in visitors to the zoo, people (with their eyes popping out) flocking to see one more time, the nearly 12-foot tall African elephant that had given gentle rides to countless English children over the years.

A letter writing campaign both to the zoo and to Queen Victoria, whose own children had been passengers on the elephant’s back, began almost immediately with irate English citizens demanding that Jumbo remain in London. Jumbo’s biggest fans began a fund to try to save Jumbo from his fate as a circus attraction and soon launched a lawsuit against the sale claiming that it contradicted the Zoo’s bylaws.

Despite these efforts, Jumbo made the journey to America and through the aggressive promotion efforts of Barnum and associates, became an immediate star. Posters and handbills showed Jumbo standing head and shoulders above buildings and allowing wagons to comfortably pass under his belly. Barnum’s advance agent insisted that Jumbo stood 13 feet, 4 inches tall and claimed (oh so elegantly) that his trunk was “the size of an adult crocodile, his tail as big as a cow’s leg, and he made footprints in the sands of time resembling an indentation as if a very fat man had fallen off a very high building.”

Elephants performing at the Ringling Bros. and...
Elephants performing at the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course he wasn’t quite that big (though I think you’ve got to admire the salesmanship, examination of the elephant’s skeleton reveal that he was actually 10’9”), but Jumbo proved even more popular on tour in America than he had in London, his name (again thanks to Barnum’s masterful promotion) even seeping into the English language as a descriptor for all kinds of large things (jumbo jets, jumbo-drinks, and jumbo-size packages of disposable diapers to name just a few).

Jumbo captured the public’s interest for a couple reasons. Obviously, he was well-promoted (I imagine if Jumbo were alive today he’d probably have his own twitter account: “ If one more kid tries to feed me a peanut I swear I will step on his foot #elephantskeepingitreal”).  But that’s not all there was to it, because Jumbo was not the first elephant to be shipped to the US and he was certainly not the first to make a lot of money for his owner. People loved elephants. And we still do.

Several weeks ago, my family and I visited the Oregon Zoo in Portland. We headed that way to view the annual Zoo Lights display, but we decided to go early. Actually, that sounds too casual. We rushed to get there in the early afternoon because on Friday, November 30, the zoo had welcomed a new baby Asian elephant who had finally been named (Lily) by public vote and was now on display for brief windows of time.

Lily at the Oregon Zoo
Lily at the Oregon Zoo. So stinkin’ cute!

Because captive elephant breeding programs are not widely successful (though the Oregon Zoo has been more successful than most), Lily’s birth was a big deal. We stood in line a long time to meet her and just before the docent let us in to see her, the keepers took mama and baby out to clean up a bit. That meant we got to enter the building in time to see Lily, a rambunctious 300-pound toddler, rush into the indoor enclosure to find fresh popcorn scattered between the glass from behind which we viewed her, and the bars that provided a walkway for keepers.

Mama (named Rose-Tu) lumbered in after her baby and reached her trunk through the bars calmly sweeping up the popcorn and dropping it into her mouth. Lily mimicked her, though Rose-Tu was pretty deft at sweeping the popcorn away from her baby. Lily’s little trunk (actually much smaller in proportion to the rest of her than you find in adult elephants) wasn’t quite coordinated enough to grab any of the popcorn, though that certainly didn’t stop her from trying.

I laughed (we all did) because not only was it just about the cutest thing you’d ever want to see, but, I think, because any of us who’d ever seen a human baby reaching and grabbing for something they shouldn’t have as Mom or Dad holds them close and keeps them out of trouble, recognized the actions we were watching.  It was undeniable in that moment that this nearly 300 pound creature was, in fact, a baby, in need of protection.

Lily has enjoyed her fair share of promotion just as Jumbo did, but I think we are drawn to elephants for more than just the fanfare (though I guess it is convenient that they come complete with their own trumpets). Our fascination, I think, stems from the fact that this giant among creatures is actually one of the most vulnerable animals on the planet and it needs our help if it is to survive both in the wild and in captivity. What’s more is that elephants, despite their size, are not overwhelmingly aggressive animals and, in fact, with caution, can establish lasting friendships with people (who they believe are people, no matter how small) and have been known on occasion to share their ice cream with small pigs. They also make very faithful babysitters, provided they stay away from the beer.

Horton Hears a Who
I wonder just how much helium it takes to make an elephant float.