African Elephant's Cataract Operation Is The Biggest Eye Surgery Ever

The elephant, Duchess, goes under the knife, with doctors using custom tools for the rare surgery.

Elephant Ophthalmology

NOT FOR USE ON GREETING CARDS, POSTCARDS, CALENDARS OR ANY MERCHANDISING WORLDWIDE WITHOUT CLEARANCE BY RICHARD AUSTINDuchess being sedated, Zookeepers are carefully monitoring Duchess the elephant, the first in the UK to undergo an eye operation, to discover how much of her sight has returned after having a cataract removed from her left eye. Paignton Zoo's 42-year-old African elephant had her right eye removed in 2011 because of glaucoma, and has lately become practically blind. Staff have high hopes for the operation's success - conducted by Jim Carter, a specialist in Veterinary Ophthalmology - although Duchess was still disorientated from the procedure and was being kept out of view with plenty of reassurance from staff. Her sight had apparently deteriorated to the point where she could only tell the difference between light and shade and staff are hoping that this will restore her sight for most distances. First Cataract Operation On An Elephant In Britain Zookeepers are carefully monitoring Duchess the elephant, the first in the UK to undergo an eye operation, to discover how much of her sight has returned after having a cataract removed from her left eye. Paignton Zoo's 42-year-old African elephant had her right eye removed in 2011 because of glaucoma, and has lately become practically blind. Staff have high hopes for the operation's success - conducted by Jim Carter, a specialist in Veterinary Ophthalmology - although Duchess was still disorientated from the procedure and was being kept out of view with plenty of reassurance from staff. Her sight had apparently deteriorated to the point where she could only tell the difference between light and shade and staff are hoping that this will restore her sight for most distances. For more information visit http://www.rexfeatures.com/stacklink/IPOXXYWMC (Rex Features via AP Images)Richard Austin/AP images

Duchess, a 4.4-ton, 45-year-old African elephant at the Paignton Zoo in Devon, England, had already lost her right eye to glaucoma, and cataracts threatened to blind the other. So in September, veterinarians put Duchess under the knife for the second cataract operation ever performed on an elephant. The surgery was similar to the one that 1.8 million Americans undergo each year.

First, vet Jim Carter made two incisions in the cornea to access the lens. Next he used a machine with a needle that vibrates at an ultrasonic frequency to break up and suck out the diseased tissue. But to operate on one of the largest land animals on Earth, Duchess's nine-person team needed elephant-sized equipment. Carter ordered custom tools just for the procedure, including a six-inch-long speculum to hold open Duchess's eyelids and a cataract-removal machine with a needle three times the length of a standard one. After two and a half hours and a few stitches, the procedure was complete. The zoo reports that Duchess is in good health.