Dr. Dan Forman received the call on a weekend, the voice on the other end of the line frantic and upset about the fox that had been unintentionally caught in a live trap.
The fox broke his jaw trying to escape the enclosure. The caller, unsure of what to do next, was instructed to bring the canid to Spring Creek Animal Hospital.
"He had a full break of the front of his lower jaw right behind the canines," Forman said. "It was completely unstable."
Though the animal, determined to be an older male red fox, could have been a candidate for euthanasia, Forman and his team, as well as volunteer rehabbers and staff from Teton Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, were able to treat the animal and release him back to the wild.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
An external "fixator" in effect established a second jaw around the fox's mandible.
The external contraption was built with methyl methacrylate, a polymer often used to fix cracked hooves, and steel pins.
Forman debated an internal fix, a plate with screws, but decided against it — not only would he need costly and specialized pieces that would require a longer stay at Spring Creek Animal Hospital, he had also determined the fracture really wasn't the best candidate for a plate.
"I tried to create something that I could temporarily attach to his jaw but then remove so he didn't have any hardware when he was released into the wild," Foreman said. "Our goal is always to basically leave no footprints."
The surgery went well. But the challenge, as is the case with all wildlife cases, was post-operative care, Foreman said.
"These guys are obviously not used to be in any form of captivity," he said. "I was very concerned about my repair in terms of how to manage it. These guys have a very strong fight-or-flight response."
The fox was kept in a horse stall, further enclosed with chicken wire. Ideally he would have spent six to eight weeks in recovery before the apparatus was removed.
But, he's a wild animal. Certain drives — like the will to escape — are hardwired.
He made it only a few weeks before he landed back at Spring Creek, having gained enough energy and wit to attempt an escape. His efforts had broke the fixator and re-fractured his jaw.
As the co-CEO of Spring Creek Animal Hospital, a title shared with his veterinarian wife, Dr. MJ Forman, Forman's clients are typically of the dog and cat variety — or at least, tame and commonly kept indoors. But as a longtime resident of Jackson Hole, Forman has also come to earn himself a badge in wildlife care, having treated Teton Raptor Center birds and various winged and furry animals for the past 30 years.
He's previously performed jaw repairs on raptors and once on a badger, the latter accident also a result of a live trap. But each case, as each species and even each animal, isn't the same.
When working with wildlife, his moral and ethical codes, as well as his legal boundaries, are also different — at least different than for what is applied to domesticated animals. When looking to help injured wildlife, he often has but two choices: Treat the animal so it can survive and thrive on its own — or euthanize.
"My job is not to turn this fox into a pet," he said. "I really thought twice about whether I should try to pursue treatment, but I felt like it was a calculated risk that we could return this fox to the wild.
"I do end up having to play —and this is something I do not take lightly — I do end up having to play God in these situations."
But even the best laid plans are often foiled. In turn, resilience is a crucial skill for wildlife veterinarians and rehabbers as is "a lot of Plan B's," he said.
Plan B for the fox included a partial mandibulectomy, a procedure that removed the lower jaw from the canines forward. The tissue was then sutured together with dissolvable materials.
Like others in the canidae family, which includes domestic dogs, foxes use their front teeth to grab and shake and their canines to tear. Molars are used for chewing and grinding. Despite having removed some typically necessary teeth, Forman had high hopes for his patient.
"He was trapped by accident in a residential area — he was probably having readily available food sources in that area to begin with, with (pet) bowls," he said. "Foxes, just like coyotes — to say they are adaptable would be an understatement."
Turns out, he was right.
After the fox recovered from his second surgery, which took less than two weeks, he was released back into the Skyline neighborhood, the area where he was accidentally nabbed. He's since been spotted on a night-vision wildlife camera, hunting and roaming around with his mate, Forman said.