Zoo Elephant To Receive Pachyderm-sized Contacts
June 20, 2012

Zoo Elephant To Receive Pachyderm-sized Contacts

Brett Smith for redOrbit.com

An elephant may never forget, but his memory doesn´t matter if he can´t see.

That´s what the keepers at the North Carolina Zoo are thinking after their bull elephant, C´sar, lost weight, grew depressed and underwent surgery because of vision problems.

What´s the next step in their solution? A pair of pachyderm-sized contacts lenses so the 12,000 pound, 38-year old behemoth can overcome his farsightedness.

Fitting C´sar with the never-before-made lenses is a matter of life and death as zookeepers first noticed he had vision problems back in 2010 when his behavior and energy level changed. They also saw his eyes become cloudy, a sign of cataracts.

"He just stood around and leaned against the walls," senior veterinarian Ryan DeVoe told Allen Reed of the Associated Press (AP). "He was just not interested in anything going on around him."

Zoo officials said they were considering euthanizing him until cataract surgeries in October and May greatly improved his condition. The downside of these surgeries was that the elephant´s natural lenses had to be removed – rendering him farsighted.

According to Richard McMullen, assistant professor of veterinary ophthalmology at N.C. State, the lenses would need to be soft and almost triple the size of human contact lenses: 38 millimeters in diameter and about half a millimeter thick. The earliest before C'sar's eyes are sufficiently healed to wear contacts is in August.

Zoo officials said German-based Acrivet would likely make the specialized lenses for C´sar. The veterinary ophthalmology company provides a wide array of corrective products intended for animals that include ocular implants, corneal lenses, and injectable solutions.

An Acrivet spokeswoman told AP that the technology for animal contacts has only been around for a little under a decade and the company has never made elephant contact lenses before. The bespoke lenses made for C'sar would be the largest the manufacturer has ever made.

While this would be the first corrective lens for an elephant, it wouldn't be the first contact lens. According to McMullen, a contact was used once on an elephant in Amsterdam in February, but just as a bandage to protect the eye after surgery.

McMullen, who performed C'sar's two previous surgeries, said corrective lenses would further improve the elephant's condition and attitude.

"In dogs, we have seen their quality of life increase," McMullen said.

Experts don´t expect the procedure or follow up treatments to cause any undue stress to the elephant. C´sar would have to be sedated for the operation, but most likely wouldn't have to go under anesthesia to get the contacts inserted.

Zookeepers said he already responds well to his post-surgery eye drops. To receive the medicine, the pachyderm´s handlers have trained him to position his eye in between two six-inch thick steel bars. With contacts, they said he would need four-to-five doses daily.

Zookeepers predicted the contacts would need to be changed every three month, but since the procedure is unprecedented–they couldn´t be sure. They also don't know what health complications might arise over time.

McMullen said the zoo is proceeding with caution and the decision to have the operation is still "a long way" off.

"There are a lot of questions that still need to be answered," he said.