To see if she is a good candidate for the surgery, Dr. Lionel Sebbag said, Rey will undergo an ultrasound, followed by an electroretinogram, which will check the functionality of her retinas in response to light.
“The retina has to function well or she won’t benefit from the surgery,” Sebbag said.
Spoiler alert: Not all stories with adorable young animals end the way we hope.
Rey is at UCD because of the School of Veterinary Medicine’s experts in both ophthalmology and exotic species. One of her handlers from the aquarium, aviculturalist Billy Hughes, said the staff at Monterey Bay Aquarium did an initial check on Rey after she hatched and noticed discoloration. At follow-up exams, he said, it became more obvious that she had cataracts in both eyes.
“African penguins live 10 to 15 years in the wild, and into their late 30s in captivity,” Hughes said, making the surgery for the young penguin a worthy gamble.
About once or twice a year, Sebbag added, the UCD Vet Med Teaching Hospital does eye surgery on a bird. “Last time was an African gray parrot,” Sebbag said. He also admitted for Rey, “the surgery technique would be challenging because of the small size of the eye.”
The best case for Rey would be successful cataract removal that left her farsighted. When a person undergoes cataract surgery, Sebbag explained, a lens is implanted to improve his or her vision. But for this small bird, there is no commercial lens available.
“She will have much more functional vision,” Sebbag said, the goal for this penguin.
As the team of veterinary students, residents, technicians and doctors tend to the penguin for nearly an hour — putting in eye drops every five minutes, checking her heart rate and blood pressure, and inserting an IV for fluids — Rey stays fairly still atop her Ziploc bag of ice, which helps counteract the warm exam room conditions.
Speaking of IVs, this is no easy feat. Guzman explained that Rey needs IV fluids during anesthesia because it tends to cause hypertension. But it’s tricky to find where the catheter should go on a creature most of them have never before handled. Guzman and Dr. Alessia Cenani, anesthesiology resident, squeeze and poke around Rey’s flippers and feet until they find a favorable spot to insert the tiny tube: under her flipper.
As the anesthesia overtakes Rey’s almost 6-pound body, she flaps her flippers in a dreamlike trance. The team of vets is not immune to this cuteness, and murmurs of “aww” float around the room.
Sebbag talked a bit about what Rey’s post-operative care might involve — the staff of veterinarians at the Monterey Bay Aquarium might video-conference with the ophthalmologists in Davis, or maybe Rey would have to make a return trip to UCD.
However, this planning can wait. It was determined that Rey was not a perfect candidate for the cataract removal surgery.
“Upon final examination,” explained Rob Warren, Vet Med Teaching Hospital spokesman, “there was no activity in one of her eyes,” meaning she is most likely blind in that eye.
“They decided to wait on the surgery on the other eye,” Warren continued. “In case it wasn’t successful, the penguin may have been left completely blind. They want to wait to decide on that risk.”