China Bear Rescue Centre receives a Specialist Ophthalmology Visit by Dr Claudia Hartley

25 October 2019

China Bear Rescue Centre Resident Veterinary Surgeon Rachel Sanki gives us a play-by-play account of the recent eye health checks on some special bears.

Veterinary Ophthalmology Specialist Dr Claudia Hartley is currently based at Bristol University in the UK and has been providing assistance to Animals Asia’s vet team since 2008. She has been to visit our sanctuary and helped our bears on several occasions and we were very fortunate to have her back on site at the China Bear Rescue Centre (CBRC) in September. As well as her visits Claudia is always available  for our vets to e-mail and ask questions. This generous assistance and expertise is something we really appreciate and never take for granted! It had been a few years since her last visit and there were a few bears that she was keen to recheck.

Myself and Monica Bando (previous CBRC Senior Veterinary Surgeon) started the visit with “bear rounds”. This involved Rachel, Monica and Claudia visiting each of the bear houses and checking bears with known eye conditions whilst the house bear carers fed the bears tasty slices of apple at the front of the dens. These bear rounds were a great opportunity for Claudia to quickly evaluate external eye problems without the need of a full anaesthetic. We were able to check 20 bears in total on Friday September 20 in the morning during rounds which was a great team effort with the bear carers and translators allowing us to speed around to every single house before the bears were let out to their enclosures that morning.

Claudia and Animals Asia's vets start visit with "bear rounds"

The CBRC veterinary nurses Katherine Alexander, Ffion Johnson, Hannah Smith and Natalie Faulds perform “monthly bear checks” at the end of each month where they give every bear at CBRC a full check over in a rounds-style den check. The 10 bear houses are split between the nurses so that the bears become most familiar with their particular nurses. We invited the nurses to attend rounds with Claudia at their houses on Friday morning so that Claudia could give them a deeper understanding of what they are noticing when assessing their bear’s eyes each month. 

As the bears bob their heads around eating slices of apple it can sometimes be difficult to photograph subtle eye issues, so having Claudia standing right next to us and giving her real time evaluations and interpretations of what we saw externally was fantastically helpful.

Once rounds were completed, we proceeded to start our health checks for the day with three bears scheduled for Friday. We started with one-eyed Ria. Claudia was able to fully examine Ria’s remaining eye during the health check and unfortunately confirm that her retina (back of the eye) was detached and therefore confirm our suspicion that she is totally blind. The good news for Ria is that the eye is comfortable so for now she gets to keep it. We now have all the information we need that we can confidently say if she shows any signs of discomfort with this eye in the future, the best course of action is to enucleate (surgically remove) this eye.

Claudia, together with Rachel, is doing eye exam for S215 Ria

We then moved on to Longo who, again with her specialised equipment and expertise, Claudia diagnosed with total retinal detachment, lens luxation and a cataract in her one remaining eye. We suspect Longo may be able to sense light and dark as her pupil does still react to direct torchlight. Again, this leaves Longo in a similar situation to Ria where if this eye does become a source of discomfort, we know the best course of action will be to enucleate the eye.

S106 Longo

The final bear of the day was Snoopy. Snoopy still has both eyes and has had previous intra-ocular surgery (very delicate specialised surgery on the internal structures of the eye) from Claudia and her specialist team. Unfortunately Claudia assessed during this health check that the lens implant in Snoopy’s right eye had become displaced. Thankfully this was not causing any discomfort and she had reasonable health of the retina, meaning we can expect her to still have partial vision in this eye. From a vet perspective Claudia’s findings of Snoopy’s left eye were fascinating – although she has had complete retinal detachment in her left eye for over 10 years (from previous assessments by Claudia during previous visits) this retina still has some fine vessels present which is really remarkable for the time it has been detached. Unfortunately, although very interesting to the vets, this doesn’t change the fact that Snoopy will likely be completely blind in her left eye. Snoopy also required a tricky dental procedure due to a rotten fractured tooth found during the health check, extending the health check and making for an extraordinarily long day!

Spirits were still high on Saturday though as Monica continued health checks with Claudia and Senior Veterinary Surgeon Emily (Eddie) Drayton who had returned from a conference to join in with the day’s health checks. Bonny and Kira were the final 2 bears at CBRC to have health checks with Claudia on this visit.

S004 Bonny & Claudia Hartley & Eddie Drayton 

Bonny was the fourth bear to ever be rescued by CRBC and has been with us since October 16, 2000. She was found in a squeeze cage on a bile farm with a dislocated elbow, all four canines broken, an abscess in her jaw, and weighing just 40kg. Bonny was in a very sorry state despite being only 6 months old. She has been with us exactly 19 years on the day I’m writing this.

Bonny was checked due to the team having noticed that she had been having very teary eyes recently, especially the right eye. She does have a history of this when her eyelids have been heavy and her eyelashes would rub against the surface of her eyes. Having already had 2 surgeries to correct this issue, we were keen for Claudia’s input. Unfortunately it appears that Bonny’s skin on her forehead is just too heavy. The weight of all her  skin folds causes her eyelids to droop a little and any further surgeries on her eyelids are unlikely to be of benefit. This is similar to the Sharpei-type breeds of dog who have too much loose skin on their foreheads. To correct this Bonny would need a huge facelift surgery, which at present is not worthwhile putting her through as Claudia helped us to assess that currently although her condition causes some tears it is not causing any damage to the surface of her eyes and therefore not likely to be causing any discomfort either. 

Kira was next up for Claudia’s assessment of her retina, as she has a history of heart disease and hypertension (high blood pressure) causing haemorrhage of the delicate retinal vessels. Thankfully today Claudia was able to assess her retina as healthy and likely that her current medications are managing her high blood pressure well.

During CBRC’s history, of the 286 bears brought to sanctuary 15 of these bears have been confirmed blind. Claudia is preoccupied with maintaining healthy eyes for the bears, she also affirms that our beautiful moon bears cope exceptionally well as blind animals. With their impeccable sense of smell and hearing they can live wonderful lives in the sanctuary of CBRC. They are able to sniff out their tasty meals, hidden in the enclosures to encourage natural foraging behaviour just as well as our visual bears! They swim, play, wrestle and navigate their enclosures with their super noses and Mickey-mouse ears! Having almost 20 years of experience caring for these bears, CBRC is a perfect home for blind rescue bears to freely to live in safety, comfort and care with no detriment to their daily lives. Whilst Claudia’s help is invaluable to saving eyesight where possible, we also value her assessment of our blind bears. By confirming blindness or limited eyesight we can provide our bear management team with this information to help tailor the enclosures for our visually impaired bears. Our team now have many years experience managing a geriatric population of rescued bears and we have become experts at adjusting enclosures to suit the individual needs of our rescue bears and the ailments that come with them. We will always aim to keep our bears free from pain and if that does result in blindness we will rest assured they are happy and comfortable in their time at sanctuary.  This kind of specialist treatment is a million miles away from the neglect the bears experience on the bear bile farms they have been rescued from and it is only possible with the support of countless generous people all around the world.

We truly cannot thank Claudia enough for giving up her precious time to assist our vet team and the bears with these incredible health checks. The Animals Asia team extends worldwide to these extraordinary veterinary specialists who give us their time and expertise from the generosity of their huge hearts and their love of animals. We love you, Claudia — biggest bear hugs to you!