Dr. Cameron Whittaker is a veterinarian in Sydney, Australia, who specializes in eye care for animals. Most of his regular patients have names like Fluffy or Buddy. Then there is Indira, a 600-pound Bengal tiger, whose failing vision, along with Whittaker’s efforts to save it, became a challenging nine-month quest Down Under. She faced a delicate surgery, during with multiple possibilities for things to go wrong.
Indira is a bit of a local celebrity: She grew up on Warner Brother’s Australian movie lot, and her movie credits include “Anacondas: Hunt for the Blood Orchid,” “George of the Jungle 2,” and a slew of television shows and commercials. Now 16, Indira lives in quiet retirement with other big cats at the Zambi Wildlife Retreat in Sydney. She remains a splendid beast.
Whittaker found that Indira had moderately crossed eyes, the beginnings of retinal degeneration, and thick, rock-hard cataracts on both eyes. Without surgery, she would go blind.
EYE OF NEWT GINGRICH
The eye of the tiger has long been a symbol of strength and survival, particularly in Asia. The “Eye of the Tiger” by the rock band Survivor drew on those themes, albeit incoherently, and became the Oscar-nominated theme song for the movie, Rocky III. In more recent years it has been a favorite at rallies of several Republican presidential candidates.
Actual tiger eyes are among the most highly-evolved in the animal kingdom. Tigers find prey by glimpsing movement; often the slightest flick of a tiny paw is enough. Like humans, tigers have binocular vision, meaning they can judge distances with amazing precision. Their lenses are huge—four times the size of a human lens, allowing maximum light to enter the eye. As a result, tigers see six times as well as humans in twilight or darkness.
To see is to eat, even for tigers in captivity. If Indira’s vision could not be saved, she would have to be euthanized.
Veterinary eye care dates to ancient Egypt (hieroglyphics in pharaohs’ tombs shows horses being treated for the common disease known as moon blindness), but in the last half-century it has become extremely sophisticated. Cataract surgery has become common in pets, and ailments like glaucoma are easily treated. More advanced procedures, such as retinal reattachments and corneal transplants, are no longer rare.
“As a rule of thumb, whatever happens in human medicine happens in veterinary care 20 years later,” Whittaker says. “It’s not that we weren’t doing cataract surgeries 20 years ago, it’s that the techniques have improved and mirror what’s happening in human medicine.”