Anaesthesiologist Dr. Jon Cracknell, of Longleat Safari and Adventure Park, motions to the bear keepers and their dart hits Kong squarely. Kong, who has been blind for at least the last few years, can't see Jon, but jumps a little and moves away from the noises and the direction of the dart.
The anaesthesia begins to take effect and Kong lies down to sleep.
Kong is a 17-year old sun bear who has been living in Free the Bears' Cambodia sanctuary at the Phnom Tamao Wildlife Rescue Centre (PTWRC) since his rescue in 2001. He was confiscated by the Wildlife Rapid Rescue Team from a karaoke bar in Koh Kong province along with his sister, Koh. He had already started to develop cataracts at that time, possibly due to the poor diet and sweet foods he was raised on as a cub.
Over time these cataracts, as well as a lens luxation in his right eye (where his lens has shifte dout of position within his eye) meant that within a few years later Kong had lost his vision entirely. While otherwise healthy and happy in his forest enclosure, and able to sniff out food well enough, Kong was difficult to integrate with other bears. He would tend to be aggressive with everyone except Ralph, another sun bear, and would regularly argue with Hefty, the third sun bear in Kong's house. Whenever Kong could sense Hefty nearby he would pick a fight.
Dr. Cracknell confirms Kong is firmly sedated, and the Free the Bears staff transfer him by truck to the clinic on the other side of the PTWRC for his surgery. Today, Kong is undergoing surgery on both of his eyes that will hopefully restore his sight.
The vet team, headed by ophthalmology specialist Claudia Hartley of the UK's Animal Health Trust, are already ready and waiting in the clinic for Kong's arrival.
Due to Kong's condition, specialist skills and equipment were required in order to restore his vision. Kong was not only sedated, but also paralysed during the surgery, the first time this has been performed on a sun bear. Kong could not move even a millimetre during the delicate eye surgery or there could be serious consequences. Everything in the theatre was tied down to prevent even the tiniest vibration from interfering with the procedure.
The lens luxation in particular may have caused too much damage to Kong's eye over the years, but it is worth performing this procedure while he is undergoing surgery anyway as there is still a chance he could regain the sight in this eye too.
The surgery lasts for three hours and, although technically very difficult, goes perfectly. Kong's cataracts were removed and his luxated lens addressed.
For a close up look at Kong's eye surgery, you can click here (WARNING: not for the faint of heart).
Not only did the world-class vet team perform this operation, but throughout the surgery also took the opportunity to train the observing local Cambodia vets and vet nurses. At the same time. For general veterinary practice, surgical techniques, anaesthesiology and so on, it was an amazing experience to be able to share knowledge between the local staff and visiting specialists.
With the surgery completed without a hitch, Kong is transferred gently back to his recovery den. This must be done quickly, before he begins to wake up. The anaesthesia was designed such that he will wake up slowly to give him a chance to get used to the changes, so he doesn't try to paw at his eyes. He has no bandages or similar for the same reason: he may try to scratch them off and hurt his fragile eyes in doing so. He wakes up slowly and takes his first blurry glimpse around his recovery den for the first time in years.
The following morning, the vet team return to Kong's recovery den, which will be his home until he has fully healed. Although eager to integrate him back with his bear friends, the risk of him getting into play fights with his fellow bears, or getting an infection from the mud or his swimming pool is too great.
The volunteers make hammocks for him and Free the Bears provides treat balls and toys to keep him active until he can go back outside.
As a keeper distracts Kong with food, the vets check the responses in his eyes. His right eye is still cloudy and there isn't much obvious response from Kong, even with the cataract removed. There is a possibilty the damage caused by this may be too much for him to regain full vision in this eye.
Vet nurse Sarah shines a torch at Kong's left eye and again, Dr. Hartley tests his responses.
Kong can see again.