A real eye opener

Animals Asia is very fortunate to have veterinary specialist supporters who are willing to give up their precious holiday and donate their time and expertise to help the bears. Often their flights and any equipment and material costs are funded by specific sponsorship or fundraising events. One such trip happened at the Sanctuary in Vietnam last week.

Claudia Hartley (A European and RCVS recognised specialist in Ophthalmology) and Sarah and Lillian – two veterinary nurses who work alongside her, arrived in Hanoi to treat several of the bears. A really busy week was scheduled but even before they could be driven the hour’s drive to the centre they had to go straight to Hanoi zoo to operate on a gibbon. The gibbon was due to be brought from the zoo to the sanctuary for the operation but the official documents allowing the gibbon to be moved did not materialise in time. So Caroline, one of the vet nurses from the sanctuary, took the equipment to the zoo and she assisted in monitoring the anaesthetic instead.

A Full Work-Up

In a normal week at the sanctuary health checks are carried out on the bears three days each week and each one takes in the region of 2-4 hours to complete depending on what is found. They aim to check the health of each bear once every 2-3 years and this involves a full anaesthetic to be able to carry out a full examination; look in the eyes and ears, check teeth and take X rays of any that have suspected problems, take blood samples and do a full haematology and biochemistry analysis while the bear is still under anaesthetic, take urine sample and analysis, ultrasound examination of the abdomen and ECG of the heart, check the limbs for signs of arthritis and make a general assessment about the skin and coat.
In view of the time it normally takes to carry out a health check there’s usually a maximum of 6 carried out in a week on a Tuesday to Thursday. BUT not when a specialist is there! The plan was that we would carry out at least 3 procedures every day and we would not limit it to the middle of the week. As I mentioned in my post about medication, lots of the bears have eye problems. It’s recognised that malnutrition – whether this is the bear having not enough food of any sort or a really poor diet of any description coupled with inadequate supples of water (often both food and water are withheld until the farmer wants to collect bile because bile is released from the gall bladder in response to feeding) leads to many eye defects.

Although the bears only get a full health check every couple of years they have monthly check ups of conditions that are known to occur frequently in rescued bears. One of these checks is a quick visual check of their eyes. These checks are done by the nurses and if any abnormal signs are seen then one of the vets will also have a slightly closer look. So a range of the bears here in Vietnam have been seen by Claudia before on previous visits (she last came here with Sarah in 2013) and more bears have been found in their health checks to have eye issues that need an expert opinion or treatment. This time Claudia, Sarah and Lillian were here to reassess some bears and to operate on others.

Dr Claudia Hartley working away!

Dr Claudia Hartley working away!


Clearing Cataracts

Potentially the most rewarding of the operations would be the removal of the cataracts from Kujira, a large and rather moth eaten-looking bear. Kujira has a lot of health problems with very poor coat condition so that he looks like a very well loved old teddy bear. He is also blind because of a cataract in each eye. He has probably been sightless for many years, which makes his plight in a bile farm even more pitiful. The thought of his misery, day after day in a tiny cage with little food or water and not being able to see when someone approaches is almost impossible to imagine without getting upset.
There were others that would also bring massive relief for individual bears. Song Sot and Kay and Sam all had entropion – a condition which is also relatively common in some breeds of dogs, where the eyelashes turn in and rub against the eye. Imagine having the discomfort of something in your eye, day after day. Moggy had a very red and inflamed eye and the lens within it had become displaced. It was painful but if the lens slipped into a position where it prevented pressure building up in the eye, she would develop a condition called glaucoma. Without specialist surgery the only option would be to remove the eye so Claudia’s visit was particularly welcome for Moggy.

Goggle box

Kujira getting some Vietnemese limelight

Kujira getting some Vietnemese limelight

When Kujira had his cataract surgery a team from Vietnamese TV were also in the surgery room to film parts of the procedure and to interview Claudia – it was quite a scene! The strange thing was that they actually stopped filming before she removed the first cataract. The room was quite crowded with the team in there, so after I had taken the blood samples to the lab I waited outside until they had finished their filming.

When I went back in I asked Claudia a couple of questions about the procedure and she invited me over to the microscope she was using to guide the delicate instruments used during the operation. This microscope had an extra eye piece so that I could watch exactly what she was doing close up. Fantastic! She had already made a tiny incision in the eye and had “hoovered out” the cloudy contents of the lens just leaving the lens capsule (a process called phacoemulsification). She was now going to put an artificial lens (one normally used in a dog) in to replace it. This lens was all folded up as she injected it into the capsule and then it unfurled like a tiny umbrella – magic! She then had to stitch up the incision she had made in the eye with the tiniest of stitches and make sure there were no leaks of fluid from the eye. It was really thrilling to watch. I have watched some great surgery in the past but to see something on this scale was so impressive.

Julie's close up of Claudia's handiwork

Julie’s close up of Claudia’s handiwork

Between Tuesday and Sunday seventeen individual bears had their eyes closely checked by Claudia while they were under anaesthetic. Several also had surgery by her. They all had a health check with blood samples taken and analysed and some also needed teeth out. It was quite a week!
For me the best part was how the team worked – it was a busy week but everyone still had time to answer my questions (I always have questions!) and everyone got on with their jobs without a hint of a complaint.


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