Wellington vet restores a lion’s roar

Francis the African Lion, of the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, got help from Wendell Nelson, retired CSU veterinarian and past president of the Wellington Chamber.

By Gary Raham

What do you do when Francis the African lion has a toothache while traveling in the Rocky Mountains? Though not a common problem, it was precisely the dilemma Trey Key faced as he moved the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus on his way to a Wellington, Colorado, engagement this summer. Fortunately, Key knew Wendell Nelson, retired Colorado State University veterinarian and past president of the Wellington Area Chamber of Commerce. Key and Nelson met prior to the circus’s first Wellington tour in 2008.

Francis suffered from pain connected with a swelling in his jaw while the circus put on their show for some mountain communities. The swelling broke and drained shortly after it was discovered, but Key knew he needed some help from an expert on treating whatever infection caused the swelling. He called on Nelson—even though they graduated from rival Ivy League schools in their college days. Nelson had studied veterinary medicine at Cornell, while Key had studied ethics and political philosophy at Brown. Despite their ancient academic rivalry, their mutual respect during a three-way phone interview was obvious. During the interchange, Key described Nelson as a “great source of knowledge and comfort.” 

Key, the circus’s owner since 2001, loves his carnivores: three exotic cats he has owned since 2005. “It wasn’t originally my idea to work the cat act,” said Key, “but I knew that I had to be able to get around them in case anyone I hired ever quit or tried to exploit the fact no one else could handle them. Once I was in the arena with them, though, I found the only place in my life that I didn’t have to think about anything else but what I was doing at that moment. Working with them renewed my passion for my business and is what has kept me going all these years since.”

What Francis needed immediately were antibiotics to knock down his infection. Nelson made some calls and, through his professional credentials and background, was able to secure antibiotics from a hospital in Steamboat Springs. When Francis arrived in Wellington, Nelson made the arrangements for the necessary blood work and tests to pinpoint the source of the infection near a lower canine tooth. Francis was on the mend.

Nelson says that the town of Wellington has received some pushback from citizens about using exotic animals in circuses, but Nelson feels good about the way Key manages his animals. In the off-season from October to March, the animals spend time at the Greater Wynnewood Exotic Animal Park in Oklahoma. Nelson plans to connect Key with a CSU vet who has offered to look at the circus’s planned route each year and provide information about potential sources of animal treatment and medicines along the way.

Nelson visited Francis after treatment. The animal was back to making his characteristic morning barks—a message to all concerned that he’s top cat—followed by a long sustained roar of thirty to forty seconds. Francis loves to perform—when he’s not giving Key a lick across the face during grooming.

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