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Eye of the tiger is saved in ‘world first’ big cat operation

An operation that has saved the eye of a tiger at Shepreth Wildlife park is believed to be a world first.

Zoo workers noticed that Ratna the tiger, who will be 18 next month, was suffering from an ulcer in her eye after previously being treated for a cataract.

After an initial operation failed they called in eye specialist Dr David Williams from Cambridge University Vet School who decided to try an operation called a hood graft - in spite of no one having attempted this procedure on a big cat before.

Ratna the tiger at Shepreth Wildlife Park, following her successful operation to save her eye.
Ratna the tiger at Shepreth Wildlife Park, following her successful operation to save her eye.

Rebecca Willers, director of Shepreth Wildlife Park said: “It’s very high stakes when you operate on a tiger because, as well as the anaesthetic risks, you can’t put a collar on them like you would with a domestic cat to stop them playing with the wound. You just have to hope they will let it heal.

“We’re very relieved that Ratna seems much better now and her eye has healed well. David said he is planning to publish a research paper about the operation because he has never heard of anyone doing this. And a big cat group I belong to has also never heard of it being done. So we believe it’s a world first.”

When Ratna arrived at Shepreth, the team had been pre-warned that the big cat would need daily eye drops administering, so a purpose built treatment area was constructed to assist the keepers with delivering these at ease. This process allowed the health of Ratna’s eye to be monitored closely, and all was going well until earlier this year. Back in February, the keepers noticed a distinct discolouration and the collection vet, Steve Philp from the International Zoo Veterinary Group, was called in for closer analysis of the situation. After a minor procedure under anaesthetic, Ratna was awake and back out enjoying the winter sunshine. Unfortunately the eye continued to deteriorate, and they called eye specialist Dr David Williams.

Ratna the tiger at Shepreth Wildlife Park (47296619)
Ratna the tiger at Shepreth Wildlife Park (47296619)

There were fears Ratna may not survive the ordeal of further surgery and the risks associated with anaesthesia. However, Dr. Williams was able to complete from start to finish in just 30 minutes, and within an hour Ratna was walking about her enclosure albeit a little unsteady.

He explained: “There was considerable damage to the cornea which in any domestic cat would have required intensive eye care, so we decided the best course of action was to operate to place a graft of conjunctiva across the front of the eye.”

Sumatran tigers Ratna and Kelabu came to Shepreth in 2019 to live out their twilight years after the loss of internationally acclaimed Amba.

Ratna the tiger at Shepreth Wildlife Park (47296595)
Ratna the tiger at Shepreth Wildlife Park (47296595)

Shepreth Wildlife Park only reopened to visitors last month and, like all zoo’s at this time, is struggling to meet financial costs with a loss of income and mounting bills. But no matter how expensive an operation may be, animal welfare will always come first, says Rebecca.

She adds: “We are passionate about all of our animals at Shepreth, the tiger especially with their undeniable important conservation value. There are believed to be less than 400 Sumatran tigers left in the wild, and zoos are now critical in keeping this genetic pool stable in captivity to safeguard their future. In addition to this, as a direct result of keeping tigers at Shepreth we have been able to fundraise and donate nearly £70,000 to projects throughout Indonesia in the fight against tiger poaching.”

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