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Gorilla regains full sight in cataract operation by Bristol Zoo Gardens

Press release issued: 17 October 2002

Media release
Gorilla regains full sight in cataract operation by Bristol Zoo Gardens

Romina, a female Western lowland gorilla at Bristol Zoo Gardens who underwent the first ever cataract operation performed in Europe on an adult gorilla in April 2002, has had her sight fully restored to both eyes by same pioneering veterinary and medical team. Born with cataracts, 21-year-old Romina underwent her second cataract procedure at the University of Bristol's Veterinary Hospital in September and, for the first time in her life, she can now see clearly though both eyes.

The success of the first cataract operation persuaded Sharon Redrobe the Head of Veterinary Science that a second operation on her remaining cataract should be performed to restore Romina's binocular vision. Romina recovered quickly from her operation in April, and her keepers immediately noted an improvement in her quality of life. She adapted well to regaining the sight in one eye, exploring her outdoor enclosure and interacting more effectively with her companion's 18-year-old silverback male Bongo and 25-year-old female Salome.

With only a handful of operations of this kind having been carried out on gorillas before, the medical team used the findings and measurements they had taken during Romina's first operation to inform the procedures used on her second eye. Although this operation is usually carried out on conscious patients in human medicine, accurate anaesthesia was critical to ensure that the 120kg gorilla remained completely unconscious throughout the operation.

A process called phaco-emulsification was used to break up the cloudy cataract by ultrasound, so that it could be removed prior to the insertion of the foldable silicone artificial lens - exactly the same procedure carried out in human cataract surgery.

Jenny Watts, a medical ophthalmologist from the Royal Hampshire County Hospital, Winchester carried out the delicate surgery assisted by Professor Sheila Crispin, Head of Veterinary Ophthalmology at the University of Bristol

Sharon Redrobe, Bristol Zoo Garden's vet, said: "Romina made such a remarkable recovery from her first operation that we thought it was important to improve her vision further and give her the chance to interact more effectively with her surroundings and companions. Romina is part of an international breeding programme, so we hope that now she can see her breeding group she may be encouraged to act.

Romina has now been reunited 18-year-old silverback male Bongo and 25-year-old female Salome, after a period of post-operative recuperation when the risk of infection was high. Andy Moore, Overseer of Primates, explained: "We again had to encourage Romina to come as close as possible to her keepers so that we could safely give her antibiotic eye drops four times a day both before and following the operation. We used the same system of drizzling the solution through a catheter, so that the drops ran gently into her eye."

Romina was born and hand-reared at Rome Zoo. She arrived at Bristol Zoo Gardens in November 2001 and health assessments carried out by Sharon Redrobe indicated that Romina's cataracts, which allowed her only minimal peripheral vision, could be treated and would give her full sight.

Romina and Bongo joined Salome at Bristol Zoo Gardens from Rome Zoo as part of the international conservation breeding programme for the western lowland gorilla. Dr Jo Gipps, Director of Bristol Zoo Gardens, explained: "Forest destruction for logging and the effect of the illegal bushmeat trade means that lowland gorillas face serious losses in the wild population. Romina, Bongo and Salome are extremely important and we very much hope that they will go on to breed in the near future.

"Visitors can see Romina and her companions on Bristol Zoo Gardens' Gorilla Island and find out more about these noble creatures. They can also learn about the Zoo's conservation work to protect gorillas in the wild and the significant role we are playing in the European-wide Bushmeat Campaign to halt this illegal trade."

* The pioneering veterinary and medical team consisted of Sharon Redrobe, Head of Veterinary Services, Bristol Zoo Gardens, Jenny Watts, Consultant Ophthalmologist, Royal Hampshire County Hospital, Winchester, Professor Sheila Crispin, Head of Veterinary Ophthalmology, University of Bristol, Dan Holden, Veterinary Anesthetist, University of Bristol, Trish Rees, Theatre Nurse, Royal Hampshire County Hospital, Winchester, Andy Moore, Overseer of Primates, Bristol Zoo Gardens.

* Western lowland gorillas are seriously threatened in the wild. The forests where they live are being exploited for their timber and gorillas are also hunted for their meat and for trophies.

* Dr Bryan Carroll of Bristol Zoo Gardens Chairs the EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) bushmeat working group that has organised the campaign to halt the illegal commercial bushmeat trade. Bryan Carroll, together with other representatives of the campaign, presented the 1.9 million signature petition to the European Parliament in Brussels on 6 November 2000.

* Western lowland gorillas come from an area of dense forest and swamp which covers SE Nigeria, Cameroon, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the SW Central African Republic in Central Africa.

* Gorillas mainly eat fruit (in season) but also seeds, leaves, bark, stems and insects. They live to about 50 years, with males growing to 1.7m (about 5'7''), weighing approximately 170kg (about 26 stones), females grow to 1.5m (about 5') and weigh about 100kg (about 15 stones). Males mature at about 10 years old when they start to develop grey or silver hair on the back and thighs - hence the term 'silverback'

* Salome is 25 years old and came from Chessington Zoo in November 1998. Salome was conceived at Bristol Zoo Gardens in 1975 and was born at London Zoo in July 1976.

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Copyright: 2002 The University of Bristol, UK
Updated: Thursday, 17-Oct-2002 11:01:04 BST

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