Whipsnade Zoo releases rhino eye surgery footage

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Vets at Whipsnade Zoo have revealed behind-the-scenes footage of sight-saving eye surgery being performed on a Greater one-horned rhinoceros on World Rhino Day.

Zookeepers noticed that Hugo, a 19-year-old, Greater-one-horned rhino (Rhinoceros unicornis) had started bumping into logs and other structures in his paddock at the leading conservation zoo.  



An examination found that the lenses in his eyes had become cloudy, and had drastically impacted Hugo’s eyesight.

The Zoo’s vets called on the services of specialist veterinary ophthalmologist, Claudia Hartley, to perform cataract surgery – the first time the procedure had ever been performed on the species at ZSL Whipsnade Zoo. 

Given an anaesthetic by dart for the op, Hugo initially laid himself down in the corner of his den on his right side – the side that vets needed access to. This meant a team of keepers and vets had to roll and move the colossal creature, who weighs over one and a-half tons, into position for the procedure.  

Keepers and vets had to be especially careful not to touch their own faces after touching Hugo, as the amount of powerful anaesthetic required to tranquilise a rhino of his size, which could have remained on his skin or in his bodily fluids, was strong enough to kill 14 people. 

Dr Molenaar continued: “Hugo’s eye had to remain completely still for the microscopic incision, so several sutures, or stitches, were put into the eye tissue, to anchor it. We had to ensure that Hugo remained asleep enough throughout the procedure that he didn’t blink and break the sutures, but not so anaesthetised that his heartbeat or breathing slowed down too much.” 

Two keepers took it in turns throughout the operation to hold Hugo’s ear upright, so that the anaesthetic could be continuously administered through an IV into a blood vessel in his ear.  

After the cloudy lens had been successfully removed from his eye, keepers massaged and used ropes to shake Hugo’s enormous legs, in order to improve his circulation, so that he could stand up as soon as he came round from the anaesthesia.  

Fieke Molenaar added: “Since the operation, Hugo has recovered brilliantly, and with the lens removed, is able to see again. It’s wonderful to be part of such a life-changing operation, and even better to see Hugo back out and about, not bumping into things anymore! We’re elated about it, and I’m sure Hugo is too.”

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Elena Johaness

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