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New Zealand’s First Penguin Patient Makes Full Recovery!

  • Thursday 1st September 2022
  • SEA LIFE Kelly Tarltons

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Ground-breaking cataract surgery performed on Gentoo Penguin as a partnership between SEA LIFE Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium and Eye Institute

A gentoo penguin from SEA LIFE Kelly Tarlton’s Aquarium has officially become the first non-human patient at Eye Institute in Auckland, undergoing a ground-breaking cataract surgery on 29 April.

Cardi, a 7 year old member of the colony at SEA LIFE Kelly Tarlton’s, required the vision saving surgery as she started to develop vision-blocking cataracts in both eyes when quite young which continued to develop over time, taking away more and more of her vision as they progressed. This began to impact her quality of life as she would startle easily when keepers or other penguins moved around her suddenly and often had a hunched posture as she tried to angle her head so she could see through the limited window of vision she had around the cataract.

Amy Wardrop, Penguin Keeper at SEA LIFE Kelly Tarlton’s explains, “Gentoo penguins are also a very social species, so being able to interpret and respond appropriately to social cues is important for their welfare, and a lot of these cues are visual. We were also concerned about the cataracts developing further and taking away even more of her vision."

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Eye Institute regularly performs cataract surgery on human patients, however they were up to the challenge of welcoming their first ever feathered patient into a specially prepared operating theatre.

“To be able to safely operate on a penguin in our theatre, we needed to order special disposable set up and instruments to ensure we had separate equipment from what we use for our human patients. There was a rigorous process required both before and after the surgery to ensure the highest levels of safety and cleanliness were met at all times. Vets from Auckland Zoo who specialise in animal anaesthesia attended the surgery to administer the anaesthetic and monitor Cardi throughout surgery. It was also important that she didn’t overheat, so the refrigerated truck waited just outside. Even our usual bed wasn’t appropriate for a penguin and we had to modify it.” said operating surgeon Dr Peter Hadden.

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Performed by surgeon Dr Peter Hadden, the surgery took a lot longer than a usual cataract surgery because the cataract was so advanced; most humans would have had cataract surgery much earlier due to the severe impact on vision. Although the penguin eye is very different from the human eye, penguin eyes and vision has been an area of ongoing research for Dr Hadden as part of a PHD he is completing, which proved very helpful in Eye Institute being able to offer their services to improve Cardi’s vision.

Cardi's recovery and reintegration into the colony has been a complete success. The cataract was successfully removed from her right eye and she was creched off into a smaller area of the penguin area for three weeks post-surgery to keep her out of the pool, and to ensure the team could reliably administer eyedrops and medication to prevent any infection or inflammation in the eye as it healed.

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“We had completed some eye-drop training with Cardi before her surgery so these caused minimal stress and we let her partner and any other interested Gentoos in with her throughout the day so she had company while she recovered. Since her recovery we have noticed a huge boost in her confidence! She no longer displays a hunched posture and is much more interactive with other penguins, keepers and enrichment items.” shared Amy Wardrop.

The Sub-Antarctic Gentoo penguins reside in SEA LIFE Kelly Tarlton’s Antarctic Ice Adventure alongside a colony of King penguins. They are ambassadors for their species, helping to raise awareness of the threats facing their wild relatives.

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