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Lions and Tigers and Bears — Open Wide!

UNLV animal dentist and beauty pageant queen Tina Brandon Abbatangelo prepares and wears multiple crowns.

People  |  Mar 26, 2018  |  By Kevin Dunegan
animal getting dental work

Dr. Tina Brandon Abbatangelo, a professor at the UNLV School of Dental Medicine, takes care of tiger's teeth. She volunteers through a program for exotic animals. 

Every dentist surely has a story about the most difficult patient they’ve encountered. Well, Dr. Tina Brandon Abbatangelo has them all beat.

When the UNLV School of Dental Medicine professor isn’t treating patients or supervising student apprentices at the campus’ dental clinic, she’s traveling nationwide to perform advanced dental work on exotic animals — including lions, tigers, and bears (oh, my!) — as a volunteer with the Peter Emily International Veterinary Dental Foundation.

Her experience and advocacy with our four-legged friends has led to a new children’s book.

And did we mention that when she’s not building crowns, she’s wearing them? Brandon Abbatangelo is the current Ms. Nevada — a two-time winner of that title, which is part of the Ms. America pageant. Her platform for each pageant furthers the mission of the Peter Emily Foundation and raises awareness about animal dentistry and the exotic animal trade.

“My parents always taught me to live a life of no regrets,” Brandon Abbatangelo said when asked how she manages to juggle it all. “If I wanted something, I had to go get it. No one was going to hand me anything. It also helps that I am not afraid to step out of my comfort zone.”

Brandon Abbatangelo’s road to dentistry began as a young girl, when a toothache landed her in the dentist’s chair.

“The pain in my mouth was so bad, I was pulled out of school for the visit,” Brandon Abbatangelo said. “I needed a root canal, and was in the chair for quite a while. But what I remember most was the dentist. He was very sweet and kept telling me how brave I was, and that everything would be fine. Moment by moment, I felt pain going away. I felt safe and comforted, and have not forgotten that feeling.”

Brandon Abbatangelo solidified her decision to pursue dentistry and went on to study biology at UNLV. She left the university for Iowa just a few months shy of graduation, and later earned a Doctor of Dental Surgery degree from the University of Iowa.

The newly-minted Dr. Brandon Abbatangelo returned to Las Vegas to practice, and also to UNLV to complete that undergraduate biology degree: “I had to finish something I started and being a UNLV Rebel Alumni was very important to me.”

Call of the Wild

She held true to that rebel spirit in 2002 when a routine health exam for her pet launched a new passion — treating dental disease in exotic animals.

While examining Brandon Abbatangelo’s new puppy, Lola, the veterinarian asked for help setting up a new x-ray machine. The dentist returned regularly to help train staff on the equipment and during one of those visits a vet tech brought her cat in for a root canal. Brandon Abbatangelo assisted with the procedure, which led to other collaborations with the vet office on dental work on a few dogs.

With the click of a few dental tools, she was taken by storm and immediately knew she’d found her proverbial home.

Over the next few years, she participated in various veterinary dental forums and hands-on courses. But it was during a 2006 convention presentation by the Peter Emily Foundation’s namesake that her interest in animal dentistry accelerated to full-blown commitment. The non-profit foundation relies on veterinarians and dentists who volunteer their time to treat exotic animals at underfunded and understaffed rescues and sanctuaries.

“I spoke with Dr. Emily after his talk and he encouraged me to join his team that was visiting an exotic animal preserve in California,” she said. “When we arrived, we met our first patient — Chuckles the chimpanzee — who needed a surgical root canal procedure. Chuckles’ tooth was in bad shape. Dr. Emily handed me a scalpel, pressed record on the video camera and said, ‘Okay, let’s do this.’ I’ve been hooked ever since.”

Since then, Brandon Abbatangelo has been on over 15 missions with the foundation and has more scheduled for 2018. The foundation routinely visits sanctuaries, including the Exotic Feline Rescue Center in Indiana, and the Wildlife Waystation in Sylmar, CA.

Some of her more memorable patients include a Colobus monkey named Billy Ray, a 450 lb. grizzly bear named Ms. Montana, a black leopard named Jade, and Sirabi, a maneless 575 lb. lion.

Crowning Achievement

Brandon Abbatangelo lectures and teaches veterinarians hands-on procedures in primate dentistry at annual forums. That is, when she’s not fulfilling other tour duties.

In 2016, Brandon Abbatangelo’s life took a glamorous turn of sorts when she decided to try her hand in the pageant world and became Ms. Nevada.

“I knew a minimal amount about being a pageant contestant, and I soon learned the competition is fierce,” she said. “But I learned this group of strong women are genuinely interested in making a difference in their communities, and I appreciate being counted among them.”

Brandon Abbatangelo drew on her dentistry background to win the Ms. Nevada crown in both 2016 and 2018. She advanced to the Ms. America portion, where she came in fourth this year. Both years she has won “The Power of the Crown Award”, which highlights contestants who have used their crown to empower women through community service.

She’s now focused on spreading awareness of her veterinary dentistry platform to children. Earlier this year, Brandon Abbatangelo added author to her list of accomplishments with the publication of “Animal Dentistry Adventures with Dr. Tabby, Animal Dentist Extraordinaire.”

The title character helps animals around the world with their dental needs, and the book — cowritten with her husband and self-published via a partnership with the American Dental Association’s Institute for Diversity in Leadership — includes a nod to the Peter Emily Foundation.

Her goal is to plant the seed early with children that animals need dental care too, and to respect animals in their own habitat. She’s now working on a second book with a dream to turn her stories into a major network cartoon show.

“A root canal on a tiger, a monkey or a cat? An extraction on a lion? Well, who knew about that? Did you know that animals need dental care too? That’s when Dr. Tabby swoops in with her crew.”