University of Pretoria (UP) veterinary ophthalmologist, Dr Izak Venter, accompanied by Dr Keri-Lee Dobbie, a veterinary surgeon and resident in ophthalmology, recently travelled to the DRC to examine a chimpanzee at the Jack Sanctuary for chimpanzees.

Dr Venter, a senior lecturer in the department of companion animal linical Studies at UP’s Faculty of Veterinary Science (and co-owner of the Johannesburg and Cape Animal Eye hospitals), and Dr Dobbie, an MMedVet postgraduate student in the same department, travelled to the DRC, after being invited by the Jeunes Animaux Confisques Au Katanga (Jack) Sanctuary in Lubumbashi to evaluate Doguy, a 13-year-old male chimpanzee.

“Jack is home to confiscated chimpanzees that have been orphaned owing to, among others, habitat destruction, disease and poaching for bush meat, as well as for the illegal pet trade,” says Dobbie. The sanctuary was founded and is run by primate lovers, Franck and Roxane Chantereau, and is a member of the Pan African Sanctuary Alliance.

According to Venter: “JACK reached out to us in 2018 as Doguy had only one remaining eye, which appeared to be uncomfortable and there was concern about vision loss and possible cataract formation.” Doguy’s right eye was removed some years ago, owing to severe end-stage lens-induced uveitis, secondary to a hypermature cataract, with retinal detachment and secondary glaucoma, resulting in a painful, blind eye.

There are only four registered specialist veterinary ophthalmologists in Africa, all UP-trained, while  Venter has the most experience with primate ophthalmic surgery.

Armed with specialist ophthalmic equipment, the vets arrived in the DRC to examine Doguy. “He had good visual acuity, as he could reach out for individual peanuts with great accuracy despite not having stereopsis (depth perception), because he had only one eye,” according to Venter. The next day, Doguy was anaesthetised to facilitate a complete ophthalmic examination at the Lubumbashi Zoo veterinary clinic. The UP vets were joined by Congolese vets and the medical ophthalmologist who had previously examined and treated Doguy.

“Upon examination, Doguy was diagnosed with mild, likely non-progressive, post-traumatic corneal degneration in the left eye. There were no signs of cataract formation or ocular inflammation,” said Venter, while no treatment was required.

The chimp’s retinal function was also tested and found to be normal. “This was wonderful news and very comforting for Roxane and Franck to finally have a definitive diagnosis and good prognosis for vision and ocular comfort for Doguy. We feel very privileged to have had the opportunity to help such a marvellous, endangered animal, and we are humbled by the incredible commitment, dedication and hard work that Franck and Roxane put into keeping the sanctuary running,” said Dobbie.

Venter is credited with performing the world’s first ever cataract surgery on an orang-utan in 2007 in Borneo, while Dobbie is doing her master’s in Veterinary Medicine with her research dissertation focusing on ophthalmic findings in chimpanzees.

Jack was founded 13 years ago; it provides a home to 35 orphaned chimpanzees, and has managed to stop all illegal trade of apes through Lubumbashi, the second biggest city in the DRC. It is an independent, self-funded NGO in Lubumbashi, DRC that needs your support. For more information click on www.jacksanctuary.org.

This is not the first time UP vets have been called on to help animals in distress abroad. In October last year, Prof Gerhard Steenkamp and Dr Adrian Tordiffe drew international attention when they performed intricate surgery to remove an infected tusk from Grand the elephant, in the former Soviet republic of Georgia. – University of Pretoria