If you can't see well, you get glasses or contacts. But what if you're an elephant? It may be the same solution. The North Carolina Zoo in Asheboro is looking at fitting its oldest elephant - who's name is C'sar - with a pair of contacts to correct his failing vision. WFAE's Marshall Terry went to the zoo to find out more.
DeVoe: I'm Dr. Ryan DeVoe. I'm the senior veterinarian at the North Carolina Zoo.
Terry: So these must be pretty big contacts we're talking about?
DeVoe: Yeah, obviously they have to be big enough to put on the elephant's eye. They're big eyes. They're not as big as you might think, but there pretty sizeable. They're a little bit bigger than a horse's eye.
Terry: What's the diameter of these contacts?
DeVoe: Probably five or six centimeters.
Terry: Tell me more about C'sar.
DeVoe: [He's] an African bull elephant. He's 38 years old. He's been here at the zoo since I think 1978. He was the first elephant here at the North Carolina Zoo and actually one of the first animals at the North Carolina Zoo. He works well with his keepers and he has an amazing personality that makes us all very partial towards him. He's special to a lot of people.
Terry: You said he's 38.
DeVoe: He is 38, yes.
Terry: Is that old for that type of elephant?
DeVoe: That's a little beyond middle age for an elephant. Most elephants even in the wild don't tend to live much beyond 50 or 60 years.
Terry: So what exactly is wrong with C'sar's vision?
DeVoe: It had been noted for a while that C'sar would have problems seeing in certain situations. He has very large tusks, so one of our first thoughts was is that 'he's having trouble seeing around his tusks' because he would occasionally have trouble finding food items or bump himself on a doorway or a fence post or whatnot. But in 2010 we started noticing him developing opacities in the pupil of both eyes, and overtime these progressed to the point where they were complete mature cataracts, essentially rendering him blind. As his eyesight diminished, he bumped into things more frequently and that became a problem. And when he went completely blind he really just essentially shut down. He became very lethargic, didn't move around much. He would eat, and he would train the best he could with his keepers. But the impression was that he just wasn't too interested in what was going on around him, and he would spend most of his day leaning against a wall in the holding area off exhibit. Or he would kind of stand in place shuffling his feet, but not really doing anything directed or meaningful.
Terry: And all because he just couldn't see that well?
DeVoe: Well, it was so abrupt and dramatic and on then top of it he actually began to lose body condition. His muscle mass decreased, his body weight decreased. He actually got to the point where you could see the bones in his shoulder starting to show through and a little bit in his hips. So we did proceed with pursuing cataract removal surgery. And when he came up from the anesthesia, it was obvious that he could see and that his behavior was changed and that his ability to move around was different. [It] was a very dramatic and positive change in his condition. Elephants are incredibly intelligent animals and they learn very fast. They're easily as smart as the higher primates. So it's not unreasonable to think that if these contacts provide him enough benefit from a vision standpoint that he'll learn to associate putting the contacts in with being able to see better, which could potentially make it easier to put them in.
Terry: Could he be uncomfortable with them on and learn how to take them off?
DeVoe: That's certainly a possibility as well. They're pretty dexterous with their trunk. So yeah if he really wanted to get them out of there I bet you he probably could.
Terry: If C'sar does end up getting these contacts, would this be a first?
DeVoe: There have been instances where elephants have had corneal injuries or lesions and they've used contact lenses as part of their therapy. But this will be the first time they've been used in a vision correction capacity.
DeVoe says C'sar's eyes have to heal from his cataract surgeries before they can look at fitting him with contacts.