AS you get older, the odds of having eye problems because of cataracts seem to shorten, and I speak from personal experience, having had the lenses in both my eyes replaced.
And so it was for Paignton Zoo’s resident elephant, Duchess, who sadly passed away recently.
Seven years ago Duchess, who only had one eye due to a previous problem, developed a cataract in her good eye and the decision was made to take out the diseased lens, making it the first time a cataract operation had been performed on an elephant in the UK and only the second worldwide.
The operation was performed by Jim Carter a specialist in veterinary ophthalmology. I was the only photographer commissioned by the zoo to photograph the proceedings for all media.
Before the operation could begin, Duchess had to be anaesthetised, which was going to cause a blip in the plans if she dropped onto the wrong side and would have to be turned over exposing her good eye.
The zoo had planned for this situation and had about 30 people outside ready to come in and help turn Duchess onto her other side, but as luck would have it she went down on the correct side so ‘elephant turners’ not wanted.
Within minutes all sorts of wires, tubes, microscopes and staff were all over Duchess preparing her for the procedure. It really was an ‘eye-opener’ photographing the misty lens and the way it was broken up and sucked out by a tiny tube.
This is where a replacement lens would have been inserted had Duchess been a person, but unfortunately nobody has created a new artificial lens for an elephant.
The operation was a complete success, Duchess’ sight wasn’t going to be perfect but with the old lens out of the way much more light through the eye gave her a useable amount of sight.
A few months later I had to photograph Duchess for a national animal welfare organisation. A large pumpkin was put into the middle of her outside area; she came out and walked directly to it, put her foot on it and crushed the pumpkin, then gathering it up in her trunk she ate all of it.
The zoo’s decision to go ahead with the eye operation was absolutely correct, she had an extra seven years of sight.
When I had a pre-op consultation with my surgeon I told him this story of the elephant and the cataract – not sure he believed me!