Abigail Klein Leichman
August 31, 2011, Updated September 11, 2012

Dr. Merav Shamir, a world-renowned specialist in animal neurology, traveled from Israel to Brazil to try to save a paralyzed lion.

CT scan

Dr. Merav Shamir giving a CT scan to Ariel the lion.

“I got a weird email from Brazil asking me to come urgently to save a paralyzed lion,” relates Dr. Merav Shamir, an Israeli veterinary neurologist and neurosurgeon with a worldwide reputation.

The call for help a few months ago was from Ariel the lion’s owner, Raquel Borges, who had launched a Facebook campaign to solicit donations for the mysteriously ill cat. She and her husband had cared for him since he was born in the shelter they run for sick or abandoned animals. Ariel had started dragging one of his legs the day after his second birthday, and by three years old, he was a quadriplegic.

“They found me because I do research on lions suffering from a certain disease, and I performed the first surgery in the world on a lion,” says the clinical senior lecturer. That nine-hour operation in 2005 saved the life of Samson, a resident of the Rishon Lezion Zoo whose skull was growing abnormally due to a vitamin deficiency.

There are no veterinary neurologists in Brazil, says Shamir. Though Israel has only one veterinary school — Hebrew University’s Koret School of Veterinary Medicine — it produces many subspecialists.

“In our school, we have a larger number of veterinary specialists than in European schools,” says Shamir, a 1990 graduate of Koret’s second class.

Shamir regularly diagnoses sick lions brought from Israel’s zoos to her office in the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine’s teaching hospital in Beit Dagan near Rehovot.

She consulted with the lion’s Brazilian veterinarian, Dr. Livia Pereira, before her trip. “She had been caring for Ariel for six months, and was so dedicated to the lion and the family that she moved in with them,” Shamir tells ISRAEL21c. “She sent me the complete medical history and I am in close contact with her ever since.”

Little hope for Ariel

Though she doubted surgery would help, based on what she’d seen from test results and a video of Ariel, Shamir wanted to be prepared. On June 20, she set off for a week in Brazil along with her Koret School colleague, Dr. Orit Chai, and their former student, Dr. Yael Shilo, an animal anesthesiologist now at the University of California-Davis. Brazilian model Graziela Barrette paid for their tickets and lodging.

Unfortunately, Shamir’s fears were confirmed. The degenerative disease had been preying upon Ariel’s central nervous system for over a year, and his breathing was labored.

“He was very loving and alert and looked like he wanted to live,” Shamir reports. “But when we left, we knew he would die soon.”

Dr. Merav Shamir

Dr. Merav Shamir examining Ariel in Brazil.

By determining the exact nature of the problem, Shamir and her colleagues hoped to rule out unnecessary medical procedures and also perhaps stop further deterioration, since Ariel’s owners did not want to euthanize him. Lions can live to age 12 in captivity.

However, tests done in Israel showed there was nothing left to do for the 310-pound big cat.

At the end of July, Pereira called her to say that Ariel had simply stopped breathing.

“It was a sad story to start with,” Shamir says. She was pleased, however, that Ariel’s owners agreed to a post-mortem before burying their beloved pet. “It’s important, because they have other lions and tigers, and this was a disease that has never been reported in a lion before. So we must determine if it was genetic or nutritional in nature.”

Nearly 63,000 people clicked the “like” button on Ariel’s Facebook page, helping to provide the $11,500 needed every month to pay for the lion’s care until his death. The funds raised to help Ariel will now be used to take care of 17 other big cats at the shelter in Brazil, according to the Help the Lion website.

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