An 18-month-old moon bear has 6.6 pounds of tissue removed from its tongue.

Veterinarian Heather Bacon has worked through earthquakes to treat rescued bears, but Nyan htoo's condition was a first for her.

A gigantic tongue protruded from the moon bear's mouth like a lumpy, pink melon. Unable to close his jaw, the 18-month-old animal dragged the organ on the ground when he walked, sweeping up germs and accumulating scars.

The oversize tongue—possibly the result of a congenital disease—made eating difficult, and the bear couldn't roughhouse with his brother at the ThaBawa animal shelter in Myanmar, also known as Burma.

Enter Bacon, a vet from the University of Edinburgh's Royal (Dick) School of Veterinary Studies, part of the team who operated on the bear in October to remove the entire tongue. (Also read about the world's first brain surgery performed on a bear.)

"It was a real impediment to his welfare," says Bacon, who administered the anesthetic for the surgery and has worked with bears for 10 years.

"He's never experienced a normal tongue before, so [using] that is a process he'll have to learn."

Major Operation

In 2016, monks at the ThaBawa shelter rescued Nyan htoo—which is Burmese for "bright," as in clever—and his brother, Kan htoo, from wildlife traffickers.

The cubs were slated for China, where they would have been illegally sold so their gallbladders could be harvested for bile. Traditional medicine practitioners in Asia often use bile from moon bears and sun bears to treat everything from cancer to hangovers.

After the monks noticed Nyan htoo's massive tongue (about the size of a banana at the time) they contacted local vets, including Khyne Ma, who reached out to Bacon and Caroline Nelson from the nonprofit Animals Asia Foundation. (See What's Inside This Grisly Warehouse of Wildlife Trafficking.)

When the team first operated in 2016, they were hesitant to amputate the whole organ, which seemed "fairly drastic," Bacon says. Weighing about 10 pounds at four months old, Nyan htoo "was so small, and we didn't know how it would develop."

Leatherback turtles face threats like getting entangled in fishing gear or changing climates, in addition to being hunted by for their meat, shells, and eggs.
Leatherback turtles face threats like getting entangled in fishing gear or changing climates, in addition to being hunted by for their meat, shells, and eggs.
Photograph by Brian Skerry, National Geographic

But the 2016 procedure didn't remove all the swelling, and Nyan htoo's condition worsened.

With help from Wildlife Surgery International's Romain Pizzi and vets in Myanmar earlier this month, the team amputated the tongue, which weighed almost seven pounds. The procedure lasted four hours.

Mystery Illness

The reason for the tongue's growth is still "a bit of a mystery," Bacon says.

She says a congenital disease could be to blame, but Nyan htoo's brother is "completely normal."

The vets also speculate the bear may have elephantiasis, a vector-transmitted parasite that can cause limbs to swell to astronomical sizes.

Elephantiasis is fairly common among the people of Southeast Asia, but has not been reported in bears. The monks also treated the rescued pair with antibiotics, which would have killed any parasites. Samples of the tongue have been sent in for testing. (Also read how veterinarians did eye surgery on a Bengal tiger.)

Meanwhile, Nyan htoo is recovering under the supervision of caretakers in Myanmar and will remain in the sanctuary. He's back to playing with his brother uninhibited and he's starting to show interest in new food.

"It was very much an international effort," Bacon says. "We're hopeful now."

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