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The farsighted elephant who may get contact lenses
Zookeepers remove cataracts from the eyes of a 38-year-old elephant to help him see, and now they're considering giving him a pair of contacts
 
C'sar, an African bull elephant from the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, undergoes surgery to remove cataracts from his aging eyes.
C'sar, an African bull elephant from the North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro, undergoes surgery to remove cataracts from his aging eyes.
AP Photo/College of Veterinary Medicine, John T. Conte

C'sar is a 38-year-old bull elephant who can't really see. Caretakers at his North Carolina zoo recently completed two surgeries to remove his cataracts and help him regain his lost vision, which still isn't 100 percent. Now officials are considering giving C'sar a pachyderm-size set of contact lenses to help him better navigate his pen — a one-of-a-kind undertaking for such a massive animal. Here's what you need to know:

How did the zoo learn that C'sar can't see?
In 2010, his caretakers noticed that the otherwise friendly elephant, who joined the zoo in 1978, had become lethargic and depressed and was bumping into things around his pen, often stubbing his toes or banging his tusks into walls. People "would throw food in front of him, and he couldn't even see it," said zoo officials. His handlers noticed that his bones were starting to show through his shoulders, and that he'd lost 1,000 pounds of his once-hulking 12,000-pound frame. Zookeepers feared that he'd have to be euthanized. Luckily, the zoo's vets determined the problem was C'sar's debilitating cataracts, which caused his vision to become increasingly clouded in each eye. 

What did they do?
The only way to treat cataracts is to remove the clouding entirely, so veterinarians did just that: First from his left eye last November, then a few months later, from his right. The zoo staff admit they didn't expect to see much of a change in C'sar's behavior. But after the surgeries, C'sar was "dramatically different," says zoo senior veterinarian Dr. Ryan DeVoe. Not only is he eating again, but he's "noticeably brighter and more interactive, and he just moves around differently." Still, his vision isn't perfect, and because of the surgeries C'sar has actually become farsighted. So now the zoo is considering giving him corrective lenses.

How big would the contacts have to be?
Elephant eyes are about the size of racquetballs. In C'sar's case, he'd need lenses almost three times larger than contact lenses fitted for a human — about 1.5 inches in diameter. If the project gets approved, a German company called Acrivet would be charged with creating the contacts, but the zoo hasn't been quoted on how much that might actually cost. Non-corrective lenses for a horse (whose eyes aren't that much smaller than an elephant's) run about $160 each, for example.

How would they get them in?
Doctors will likely need to sedate C'sar to swap lenses in and out, which will probably only happen every three months. Eyedrops will have to be administered four to five times a day, but officials say that shouldn't be a problem. "C'sar already responds well to post-surgery eyedrops," says the Associated Press. "The bull elephant's handlers have trained him to lean his eye in between the six-inch thick steel bars to receive the medicine."  

When will the decision be made?
Doctors will assess how C'sar's eyes are progressing when they are fully healed sometime in August, and the zoo will need to consider whether the cost and manpower are worth it. They will definitely move ahead with the lenses "if he continues to have problems getting around, stops eating like he should, or appears lethargic and depressed," a zoo spokeswoman tells ABC News. "So far the exact opposite has happened."

Sources: ABC News, Associated Press, Kansas City Star, Metro

 

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