C'sar the elephant could soon be getting a custom-made pair of contact lenses to correct his vision, a first for his species.
The 38-year-old African elephant, a resident of the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro since 1978, recently underwent his second surgery to remove cataracts in his eyes. Both surgeries were performed by veterinarians from North Carolina State University's College of Veterinary Medicine.
C'sar's keepers first noticed that his eyes were becoming cloudy in 2010. By March 2011, his eyesight had deteriorated so much that he was removed from exhibit. In May of that year, C'sar was found on the ground, lying on his side in an outside paddock, unable to stand up on his own. Zookeepers used a special crane to help him get back on his feet.
Zoo senior veterinarian Ryan DeVoe told the Associated Press that blindness brought depression to C'sar. "He just stood around and leaned against the walls," DeVoe said. "He was just not interested in anything going on around him." The elephant became lethargic and lost 1,000 pounds, enough for his bones to show through his shoulders. The situation became so severe that zookeepers feared they would need to euthanize the animal.
Instead, C'sar had cataract surgery on his left eye in November 2011. Surgery on his right eye followed in May. The surgeons had hoped to implant permanent corrective lenses during the surgeries, but the cataracts had done too much damage to the elephant's eyes. Still, the procedures dramatically improved his vision but left him far-sighted, a condition that could possibly be improved by temporary corrective contact lenses.
DeVoe told the Charlotte Observer that the effects of the surgeries could be seen almost immediately. "It was dramatically different, and he seems to be in pretty good shape now," he said "He's noticeably brighter and more interactive and he just moves around differently." Before the surgeries the elephant was constantly banging his toes and trunk and things he could not see, which contributed to his depression.
Veterinarians will now wait until C'sar has healed from this most recent surgery before making a decision about the special contact lenses. According to the AP, the lenses would be 38 millimeters in diameter and half a millimeter thick — about three times the size of human contact lenses. Similar corrective lenses are used for dogs and horses, but they have never been created for elephants. The lenses would be manufactured to order by the German company Acrivet and would probably need to be changed every three months.
N.C. State assistant professor of veterinary ophthalmology Richard McMullen, who performed both surgeries, says a decision on the contact lenses won't be made for some time. There is no current research on how corrective lenses would physically affect an elephant's eyes, he told the AP.
No matter which way the zoo decides to go, the surgeries have already save their famous elephant's life and potentially given him several more decades of quality time. African elephants have an average lifespan of 60 years in the wild.