Contact Lenses Considered for Elephant

(College of Veterinary Medicine, John T. Conte/AP Photo)

After having CSar, the North Carolina Zoo's 38-year-old elephant, undergo two rare surgeries to correct cataracts, caretakers at the zoo and a team of veterinarians from North Carolina State University are considering whether to get the elephant corrective lenses, which would make CSar the first elephant ever to receive contacts.

But they fear the risks of the contact lenses could outweigh the benefits.

"It's never been used before in an elephant or in many animal species, and so it's a little bit difficult for us to predict how it would affect him," said Richard McMullen, assistant professor of veterinary ophthalmology at North Carolina State University. McMullen performed both of C'Sar's cataract surgeries.

C'Sar, an African bull elephant, was diagnosed with cataracts in 2010. His caretakers noticed he seemed lethargic and depressed and had difficulty getting around his 7.5 acre exhibit. The 12,000 pound elephant had also lost 1,000 pounds.

"They would throw food in front of him, and he couldn't even see it," said Rod Hackney, public relations manager at the North Carolina Zoo.

The zoo removed C'Sar from his exhibit in March 2011 because his eyesight was so poor, Hackney said. In October 2011, the elephant had his first surgery. This spring CSar was returned to his exhibit and seemed to be doing much better, until his second surgery in May, Hackney said. Although the surgeries improved C'Sar's sight, they left him farsighted.

While CSar recovers from his second surgery, he is being kept in a barn with a small paddock, where caretakers can keep a closer eye on him. C'Sar has already gained back the weight he lost and appears upbeat, Hackney said. Zoo officials are confident he will make a full recovery.

"We believe the surgeries will improve his sight enough that the lenses won't be necessary," said Hackney.

One of the major reasons zoo officials remain so wary about the contact lenses is the difficulty of putting them in.

"When we get close to his eye he'll squint pretty tightly," McMullen said. "That's going to be the first hurdle we have to overcome."

Although at 38 C'Sar is in middle-age in elephant years, cataracts aren't the only health problem he has had during his 34 years at the zoo.

"He has fallen down in his area and had to be picked up with a crane," Hackney said. "He has arthritis and other problems."

If the zoo decides to go ahead with the contact lenses, they would have to be changed about every three months, during which C'Sar would have to be put to sleep, Hackney said.

"Because of his problems getting up from a lying position, the chances are good that they're not going to put the contact lenses in," Hackney said.

Acrivet, a Germen-based company that makes corrective lenses for dogs, is ready to make the lenses if needed. C'Sar's lenses would need to be 38 millimeters in diameter, McMullen said.

"We'll be able to tell very early on if they're going to make a positive effect or not, but we still need to get to that point," McMullen said.

C'Sar came to the zoo in 1978 from Africa at 4 years old. He is now one of seven elephants in the exhibit, and is the oldest remaining member of the original animal collection on site. He is also one of the most popular animals at the zoo.

The zoo is waiting until September or October to finish observing C'Sar and decide if contact lenses are necessary.

"Contacts would be considered if he continues to have problems getting around, stops eating like he should or appears lethargic and depressed," Hackney said. "So far the exact opposite has happened."