He's called Piercing, he's a porcupine at Bioparc Fuengirola and he's become the first of his species to have a cataract operation, a visual problem which limits mobility and is also suffered by humans. He can now see clearly again and has returned to participate in a daily performance put on by the zoological park.
Piercing was born at Bioparc Fuengirola in Malaga in 2002 and is loved by staff and visitors alike, according to his keeper and vet Rosa Martínez Valverde, who takes care of the animals with Jesús Recuero, the technical director of the area. A porcupine's life expectancy in the wild is around 15 years, but in captivity that figure can double according to Rosa due to the quality of dietary control and healthcare that they receive in addition to the absence of predators. These giant rodents are strictly nocturnal animals that live in dens and therefore do not have very sharp eyesight. Nevertheless, Piercing's case was extreme as "he could barely see anything," Rosa maintains.
The porcupine is part of a show exhibiting different scenes of animals in a jungle clearing to the public. "It is meant to teach the visitors about different types of animals and to make them aware of the importance of the tropical rainforest, an extremely vulnerable ecosystem which we must protect," Rosa states. In the show, Piercing walks in front of the audience sat in the dress circle, in a scene recreating jungle clearings while he searches for food which the keepers put in various places. He then comes across a serval, a wild cat from Africa, as both pretend to hunt the other, before Piercing manages to escape back to his den. "Even with very limited vision, due to his training Piercing was able to judge distance and could roughly guess where everything was. Not only has his quality of life improved since the operation, but he also no longer bumps into obstacles because he has regained so much of his vision," states Rosa.
Fidel Causse del Río, the person who carried out the operation and also the manager of the Animal Vision clinic in Madrid, has more than ten years of experience in veterinary ophthalmology. Although it wasn't his first time operating on a wild animal, this particular case brought its own difficulties. The first was that there was no recorded case of eye surgery on this species in the world. "It was a joint effort between the vets, the park's keepers and the surgical team, especially as he needed eye drops after the operation," Fidel explains. The first step was to train him to allow Fidel to put the drops in. "We had to show the keepers exercises to calm him down because it is a very delicate operation and you have to handle him carefully," he adds.
A complex operation
Porcupines are one of the biggest rodents around, but their small eyes added another complication to the surgery. The vet used phacoemulsification, a technique which consists of breaking up the cataract through ultrasound, on the animal. However, adjusting the technique to the seven-millimetre eyeball of the porcupine made the operation, which went on for two hours, more difficult. The vet made a 2.7 millimetre incision into the cornea, through which he inserted a tool to extract the opaque content of the lens. A fine and absorbing material was then used as a suture.
For dogs, cats and many other animals, an intraocular lens is used to replace the natural one, just like in humans. With such a lens being too small to fit into his eye, Piercing would have needed distance glasses had he not regained most of the vision he had lost. The final stage was to treat him with the anti-inflammatory and antibiotic drops.