There are few people willing to put their hands anywhere near the mouth of a tiger. Dr. Laura Braswell is not only willing to do it, she enjoys it.
For 25 years, Braswell has been the dentist for Zoo Atlanta, treating the teeth of exotic animals such as gorillas, elephants and pandas.
Braswell, a periodontist, spends the majority of her time working on the teeth and gums of her human patients. But the paintings of jungle animals and the statue of two giraffes in the waiting room of her Buckhead office reveal her other interests.
“It’s definitely a hobby,” Braswell said. “I have so much fun in my office and then I get to do this on the side. I’m truly blessed.”
When someone notices an animal is in pain, they call Braswell. Typcially, she treats animals for periodontal disease or removes teeth. She often calls in a specialist to perform root canals.
“Laura is a little exceptional in that she’s been helping the zoo for so long,” said Hayley Murphy, director of veterinary services for Zoo Atlanta. “She’s probably one of the better ones in the country to call because she has such a vast experience level.”
Braswell began working with animals as a student at Emory University, where she cared for the animals at Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center.
“When they decided to move the orangutans and gorillas to the zoo, I went along as their dentist,” she said.
Exotic animal dentistry is an unusual specialty. Braswell is one of only a handful of dentists in the country that treat zoo and circus animals on a regular basis. Braswell said she is best known for her knowledge of the teeth of monkeys and apes. Others focus on animals with tusks, like elephants and walruses, or lagomorphs, such as rabbits.
“You know who the players are,” Braswell said. “We have a camaraderie.”
There isn’t much literature on the treatment of animal teeth, Braswell said. Most of what she and her peers have learned is through independent study.
Braswell studies photographs, research articles and X-rays to learn about the anatomy of an animal. She even learns from non-traditional materials — animal skulls, or articles written by big game hunters of the 1800s, who made detailed notes about their prey.
“I’ve studied skulls to learn the anatomy, so I know where the nerves and arteries and veins run,” Braswell said.
Braswell said the teeth of apes and monkeys are very similar to humans, “but dogs and cats and exotic animals — tigers, lions and bears — are quite different.”
“So most of that was on-the-job training,” Braswell said. “There are no books on exotic animal dentistry. I’d like to write one when I retire.”
Braswell said she has always loved animals and has enjoyed interacting with the animals at Zoo Atlanta over the years.
“They all have individual personalities and are extremely intelligent,” Braswell said. “I don’t get to spend much time with them awake, but I try to spend time with their keepers and trainers to learn more about their personalities. I kind of get to know them personally which is really fun.”
Murphy said the staff at the zoo enjoys working with Braswell, too.
“She’s just a really fun person. It’s easy to work with her. She’s very vivacious and all the keepers love to work with her. She doesn’t come in and do her thing and leave. She talks to you about dental issues and dental diseases. She’s phenomenal about educating people,” Murphy said.
Braswell said she has many good memories of working with the animals over the years. Willie B, Zoo Atlanta’s beloved silverback gorilla that died in 2000, was one of Braswell’s favorite animal patients.
“Willie B was always really fun to work with,” she said. “He was just such a character. He would put raisins in his big hands and eat them one at a time and savor them.”
Braswell said she has had an opportunity to work on many different types of animals over the years, not only at the zoo but as a consultant for movies, Ringling Brothers, Sea World and the Georgia Aquarium.
“l work with the animals that are endangered, like a drill baboon and giant panda. And by keeping them healthy we’re helping preserve a species which is really cool,” Braswell said.