A 4-year-old male Humbolt penguin (Spheniscus humboldti) named Munch residing at Chester Zoo in the UK has received the zoo's first-ever cataract surgery on a penguin to help save its sight and luckily, it has all gone to plan.
When the team at Chester Zoo, a registered conservation and education charity in the UK renowned for its work with endangered animals, realized that Munch was having difficulty catching fish and bumping into other penguins, they quickly intervened.
“We spotted that Munch was swimming slower than normal and was struggling to dive for the fish at feeding times – and if a penguin can’t catch a fish then you know something is amiss. That’s when we called in the zoo’s vets," said Sophie Bissaker, Parrots and Penguin Keeper at Chester Zoo, in a statement sent to IFLScience. “After a thorough examination, the team discovered that Munch had cloudy patches on the lenses in each of his eyes – leaving him with very little sight in his left eye and none at all in his right. This meant that only specialist treatment could save his vision.”
After calling in the vets, they discovered that Munch had cataracts in both eyes, which was causing his sight difficulties and it was decided that surgery was the only option to save his vision.
“I’ve been in the veterinary field for almost 24 years and Munch is the very first penguin I’ve operated on – they’re not regular clients that’s for sure. Unfortunately, because his quality of life was impacted by the diminished sight, surgery was the only option we had available to us," said Iona Mathieson, a veterinary ophthalmologist from Eye Vet, who carried out the delicate surgery.
Following the successful surgery, Munch was placed in a separate, shallow nursery pool to recover. He was joined by his life partner Wurly, to keep him company.
“It was important for Munch to have time away from the rest of the group for a couple of weeks following his surgery while we regularly checked up on him. But, penguins live in tight-knit colonies and like to be with other birds, and so we decided to provide Munch with some company with his life partner Wurly," Bissaker said. "Munch really dotes on Wurly and wherever she goes, he follows, so I’m sure she provided some great comfort to him. The pair have always been inseparable and had their first chick, Leek, in 2019 and are even incubating eggs once again."
“It’s been an emotional rollercoaster for everyone involved, and although Munch is still receiving daily eye drops to help him heal, he’s already swimming through the water faster, feeding with the group again and waddling around with ease," she added. "He’s a confident, happy little guy again!"
Like many zoos around the world, Chester Zoo has had a difficult time during the pandemic as it was forced to close for visitors, which meant a loss of income for animal upkeep and conservation. However, work behind the scenes to look after its animals continued. Fortunately, in Munch's case, Eye Vet stepped in to help with the cost of Munch's surgery.
“We had seen the news about how the COVID-19 pandemic had massively impacted Chester Zoo, and this sort of surgery can certainly be costly. Eye Vet was more than happy to donate both equipment and time to help out," Mathieson said. "We also approached several companies that manufacture specific items that we needed for the surgery to see if they’d kindly donate it to us and, wonderfully, they all agreed. We’re really happy to report that the surgery was successful and Munch is now well on the way to making a full recovery."