ASHEBORO, NC - C'sar, the North Carolina Zoo's oldest male elephant and one of the park's most well-known animals, underwent successful cataract surgery for the second time in six months Tuesday, an unusual procedure for elephants.

The 38-year-old African bull has been a zoo celebrity since arriving in 1978 at age four. Initially diagnosed with cataracts in both eyes in 2010, his failing sight forced animal staff to keep C'sar off exhibit from March 2011 until his recovery from the first surgery conducted on his left eye in November 2011.

Both eye procedures were performed by a team of specialists from the N.C. State University College of Veterinary Medicine led by surgeon Dr. Richard McMullen. Original plans had called for installation of a specially created artificial lens in each eye. But damaged tissue caused over the years by the cataracts would not have provided enough support for the replacement lenses, McMullen said. If successful, they would have been the first artificial lens implants ever installed on an elephant.

Removal of the first cataract improved C'sar's vision immediately, according to zoo senior veterinarian Dr. Ryan DeVoe, although without the lens implants he is farsighted. Surgery on the right eye began around 9:30 a.m. Tuesday and was completed in about two hours, DeVoe said. C'sar is expected to return to the N.C. Zoo's seven-acre elephant exhibit within several weeks after keepers and veterinarians have time to observe the animal's recovery and improvement.

According to DeVoe, the cataract surgeries have opened the door to possible installation of specially designed contact lenses that could improve the elephant's sight even more. That may occur in the fall, again depending upon the elephant's recovery and eye conditions, the DeVoe added. The installation of contact lenses would also mark a first in the history of veterinary medical care for elephants, DeVoe noted.

Most recently the zoo's elder bull elephant has been in the news for another reason. On May 18, C'sar was visited by Angus Mercer, a retired Charlotte businessman who had contributed $12,000 to purchase the elephant for the fledgling N.C. Zoo back in 1978. Mercer, accompanied by children and grandchildren, returned to Asheboro to visit with C'sar for the first time in 33 years. C'sar's name is a contraction of Mercer's then new company, "Contractors Service and Rentals."

The reunion was emotional for the zoo's elephant staff as well as the Mercer family and received statewide media attention. In the years since Mercer's last visit to the State Zoo, his "family's elephant" has grown from four feet tall at the shoulder and weighing 1,600 pounds, to stand 11 feet tall and tipping the scales at nearly 12,000 pounds.

The zoo is an agency of the N.C. Department of Environment and Natural Resources, Dee Freeman, Secretary; Beverly E. Perdue, Governor.

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