Leiden University: Fiffy the chimpanzee can see again thanks to unique operation at the LUMC

Fiffy the chimpanzee had rapidly developed cataracts in both eyes that made her as good as blind. Eye doctors at the Leiden University Medical Center (LUMC) have now managed to replace the lenses in both her eyes. As far as we know, Fiffy, who is thought to be between 30 and 40 years old, is the first chimpanzee to have undergone such an operation in the Netherlands.

In 2008 AAP, a charity for primates and other exotic mammals, saved Fiffy from a solitary existence in an attic just outside Paris. How many years she had spent locked up there after her owner could no longer cope with her is unknown. She was severely overweight and alongside adapting to a new diet also had to learn how to interact with her peers. When she started to make less contact over the past few months, it was discovered that she could barely see her food or her group mates, which meant a threat of exclusion from the group.

Thanks to the sterling efforts of the eye doctors and assistants at the LUMC and the suppliers of the necessary equipment Fiffy’s cataract operation could take place on 23 May in AAP’s Chimpanzee Complex in Almere. AAP vet Hester van Bolhuis said afterwards: ‘The operation was nerve-wracking for everyone. For the eye doctors it was the first time they had operated on an ape. It was a difficult operation too because the cataract in the right eye was particularly severe and the lens had fused to the capsule. All in all, the operation took 2.5 hours, but it went really well. I’m incredibly grateful for all the help and enthusiasm in helping Fiffy regain her sight. Fiffy has already had so much to contend with in her life. This is the least we could do for her.’


Reading glasses
The eye doctors at the LUMC, Dr Irene Notting and Dr Yanny Cheng, are pleased to have been able to help Fiffy. Dr Notting: ‘I usually operate on people whom I can prepare properly and who can tell me what is wrong. With Fiffy even prior examination was a challenge because our equipment doesn’t cater for the shape of her head. But we succeeded and Fiffy now has ultramodern lenses. Left for close up and right for at a distance because reading glasses obviously aren’t an option!’

When Fiffy came round from the anaesthetic, her keepers said that she was overwhelmed by her new sight and couldn’t stop looking at her hands and the platform in her enclosure. She can now see her keepers approaching from a distance with strawberries, something she wouldn’t have noticed before. Fiffy was trained before the operation to have eye drops, something she tolerates now she can see once again. It will be a special reunion when she is allowed back to her group. She has only been separated from them for a few days but has hardly been able to see them for months.

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