How Do You Do Eye Surgery on a 600-Pound Tiger?

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Author:
Laura Parker

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.”

Seth Koch, a veterinarian in Washington, D.C. who also provided eye care for exotics and large animals at the Smithsonian’s National Zoo for more than 40 years, was among the first veterinarians trained in vision care. The group took classes in human ophthalmology in the morning and attended regular veterinary classes in the afternoon. Koch became the first veterinarian to perform cataract surgery on a komodo dragon -- at the National Zoo.

“It was a scene-and-a-half,” he says, leaving the details to the imagination.

Human eye care is so much simpler.

“With humans, you’re only dealing with one species,” Koch says. “In veterinary care, a dog has a different eye than a cat. Which are both different than a horse. It’s all about taking the basics and transferring that knowledge to other species. And it wasn’t easy, you had to make decisions that had never been made before in ophthalmology.”

 

BIG CATS HOLD A GRUDGE

As eye surgery patients, big cats present special challenges.

“It’s difficult to do the treatment and follow-up that’s necessary,” says Tammy Miller, a veterinarian who treats lions and tigers at the Big Cat Refuge animal sanctuary near Tampa, Florida. “They hold a grudge. One lion whose lens I removed used to let me get close to him and look at him. After that whole surgical episode, he has never forgiven me. He rushes the cage at me. I saved his eye, but he has not appreciated that in any way.”

Whittaker trained in Florida, and spent time in the 1990s performing retinal tests on alligators at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “The challenges back then were how do you anesthetize an alligator and the practicality of trying to do the various tests we needed to do,” he says.

At the time, the only equipment to be had was human equipment, which was available at the university hospital. On more than one occasion Whittaker found himself carrying a four-foot-long alligator with a pillowcase over its head and its tail flapping back and forth through the hospital’s hallways, past rows of human patients awaiting appointments. In those only-in-Florida moments, he says, no one so much as raised an eyebrow.

 

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