Pioneering surgery saves chimpanzee Cara's life

Last updated 05:00 14/06/2010
ANDREW GORRIE/The Dominion Post
IN THEATRE: Cara is thought to be the first chimpanzee to have ear surgery. A 3D model of her skull was used to prepare for her operation.

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In a world first, surgeons at Wellington Zoo have cured an infection that spread through a chimp's inner ear and part of her skull, and would have eventually killed her.

Cara, a 28-year-old chimpanzee, has suffered from a bacterial ear infection for five or six years.

Zoo staff tried to treat it with antibiotics but it became so resistant that the medication had no effect.

The infection inflamed her ear from the outside into the middle ear, and was beginning to eat at part of her skull. If left untreated, it would eventually have spread to her brain and killed her.

Wellington ear, nose and throat surgeon Rebecca Garland, who works for Capital and Coast District Health Board, specialises in ear surgery - but most of her patients are human.

She donated her time and equipment, as did vet staff, to help with Cara's surgery. The health board also provided the use of expensive equipment, including a microscope used in the operation.

The most expensive part of the operation was a 3D model of Cara's skull used to prepare for the real surgery, which cost about $900.

Dr Garland said that, as far as research showed, the surgery had never before been performed on a chimpanzee.

"The ear was almost closed from the chronic infection, and sticks and straw. We ended up taking out all of the ear canal, and closed the entrance so she won't be able to stick anything in there. It's just like a belly button instead of an ear now, but she hasn't heard out of that ear in a long time."

Zoo vet Francois Lampen said it was unclear whether the infection had been caused by Cara's habit of sticking foreign objects in her ear, or if the habit was a response to the discomfort of the infection.

After the surgery, the wound was closed with stitches sewn under the skin, so that Cara and the other chimps would not be able to remove them with excessive grooming.

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- The Dominion Post


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