3-year-old San Diego Zoo gorilla undergoes eye surgery

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Leslie, a 3-year-old gorilla, on her mother’s back.

ESCONDIDO, Calif. — UC San Diego Health professionals worked with animal care specialists to save the eye of a 3-year-old gorilla at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park, it was announced Monday.

Leslie, a western lowland gorilla, was the cause of concern last month when Safari Park employees noticed cloudiness in her left eye. Closer inspection confirmed the lens had changed and the eye was shifting haphazardly, causing the gorilla to favor her right eye.

The park’s veterinarians organized a team of internal and external experts, including ophthalmologists and anesthesiologists from UC San Diego Health, to perform the park’s first-ever cataract surgery on a gorilla.

“As veterinarians, we are experts in our species but we are not necessarily specialists in all of the different fields of medicine,” said Dr. Meredith Clancy, a San Diego Zoo Safari Park associate veterinarian. “We rely heavily on the amazing community we have here in San Diego to help us out.”

The doctors gathered on December 10 to work on Leslie at the San Diego Zoo Global’s Paul Harter Veterinary Medical Center. With veterinarians in khaki and UC San Diego Health medical team members in scrubs, the gorilla was given a pharmaceutical muscle blocker to prevent any movement.

Dr. Chris W. Heichel, cataract surgery specialist at UC San Diego Health’s Shilley Eye Institute, performed the surgery, his first on a gorilla.

“Fortunately, the similarities between the anatomy of human and gorilla eyes are great enough to allow us to safely navigate the procedure without complication,” Heichel said. “The remainder of the eye appeared to be in excellent health, indicating exceptional vision potential for the rest of Leslie’s life.”

A cataract is a clouding of the clear lens behind the colored part of the eye, known as the iris, and is part of the normal aging process. However, Heichel, Clancy and other animal caregivers believe the young gorilla’s cataract was caused by trauma in her youth, possibly from a fall or from rambunctious play with her troop.

While Leslie will require antibiotics and steroids to prevent infection and inflammation, she is already back with her troop at the Gorilla Forest Habitat at the Safari Park.

Because of Leslie’s age, the Safari Park’s animal care team was concerned her 31-year-old mother, Kokamo, might be upset about Leslie’s absence from the gorilla habitat during the procedure. They elected to anesthetize Leslie and Kokamo at the same time, and used the opportunity to perform a routine health check on Kokamo, which included dental, cardiac and overall physical assessments. The results of Kokamo’s exam showed that she continues to be in good health.

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