RALEIGH, N.C. Ė After Císar the bull elephant lost weight, grew depressed and underwent surgery because of eye trouble, his keepers at a North Carolina zoo began to consider a pioneering move in pachyderm medicine: giving him a set of king-size contact lenses.
Officials at the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro and the North Carolina State Universityís College of Veterinary Medicine are weighing whether the risks are worth it. Císarís caregivers said an elephant has never been fitted with corrective lenses, and they are unsure if they want Císar to be the worldís first test subject.
Zookeepers first noticed his eyes were cloudy in 2010. He gradually lost 1,000 pounds, became lethargic and seemed depressed.
ďHe just stood around and leaned against the walls,Ē said senior veterinarian Ryan DeVoe. ďHe was just not interested in anything going on around him.Ē
After Císar had cataract surgeries in October and May, he perked up and started regaining weight. However, when the natural lenses from both of his eyes were removed, the animal was left farsighted.
Císarís eyes are a bit larger than the eyes of a horse, said Richard McMullen, assistant professor of veterinary ophthalmology at North Carolina State. The lenses would need to be soft and almost three times larger than contacts fitted for a human.
It will be August at the earliest before Císarís eyes are sufficiently healed to wear contacts.
German-based Acrivet would create the contacts if called upon by Císarís caregivers. A spokeswoman said the technology for animal contacts has only been around for a little less a decade and the company has never made elephant contact lenses before. The custom creations for Císar would be the largest the manufacturer has ever made.
McMullen, who performed Císarís two surgeries, believes corrective lenses would further improve the elephantís well-being.
ďIn dogs, we have seen their quality of life increase,Ē McMullen said.
The elephant wouldnít have to go under anesthesia to get the contacts inserted, but he might have to be sedated.
Císar already responds well to his post-surgery eye drops. The bull elephantís handlers have trained him to lean his eye in between the 6-inch-thick steel bars to receive the medicine. With contacts, he would need four to five doses daily.
Zookeepers arenít certain how often the contacts would need to be changed. Their best guess is every three months. Zoo officials also donít know what health complications might arise over time.
While this would be the first corrective lens for an elephant, it wouldnít be the first contact. McMullen said a contact has been used once before on an elephant in Amsterdam in February, but just as a bandage to keep foreign objects out of the eye after surgery.
McMullen said the decision is still ďa long wayĒ off and will ultimately be decided by the zoo.
ďThere are a lot of questions that still need to be answered,Ē he said.