See to believe: Two of the Minnesota Zoo’s Hawaiian monk seals get Lasik

Courtesy of NOAA

Two of the Minnesota Zoo’s five Hawaiian Monk Seals, residing in Discovery Bay, underwent eye surgery November 9th, 2017.

Koa and Opua didn’t actually get Lasik: They were operated on by Dr. Carmen Colitz, a veterinary ophthalmologist that specializes in marine mammal eye surgery. The zoo’s own senior veterinarian, Dr. Jim Rasmussen, was responsible for bringing together the team to perform the surgeries, including Dr. James Bailey, a veterinary anesthesiologist that specializes in marine mammal anesthesiology, veterinary staff from the Minnesota zoo, and members of the University of Minnesota veterinary anesthesiology department.

Basically, it was a pretty big deal.

Koa and Opua, who were going blind, underwent approximately an hour of surgery for each one of their eyes. They were under anesthesia for a considerably longer period due to surgery prep and recovery time from the surgery.

The surgeries were a success. As Dr. Rassmussen said after the procedure, “We are very pleased with how smoothly the surgeries went.  We are fortunate to be able to work with the specialists like Dr. Colitz and Dr. Bailey to provide these seals with these life-changing surgeries.”

The surgeries were also preventative in nature, done to avoid any possible future problems while aiding in the greater goal of improving the aging seals’ vision – Koa may regain her sight partially, if not fully. Opua had one of her eyes removed after lack of function and discomfort were observed.

The recovery time for the surgeries is estimated at three-to-four weeks, and zoo staff are cautiously optimistic that both seals will make full recoveries. The staff is keeping them comfortable, monitoring both seals closely to ensure that they are healing properly and that their conditions remain healthy and stable.

As Minnesota Zoo’s marine mammal curator, Melanie Oerter, says, “The marine mammal staff have been monitoring the seals closely and are happy that both seals appear to be doing well and healing properly. They are now both back in the water and may be seen swimming around their pools.”

The Hawaiian monk seals, along with their companions Nani, Paki, and Ola, were brought to the zoo after being rescued, very young ages, from lack of food in their natural habitat.  During the rehabilitation process, some of the seals developed eye problems that resulted in limited vision. Because of this limited vision, they were deemed as being non-releasable and were “retired” at the Minnesota Zoo.

They are actually the only Monk Seals that the general public can see in person outside of Hawaii.

Further facts and information:

  • The tank the seals can be seen gliding through holds 1.1 million gallons of filtered salt water
  • All the seals have unique personalities; some like eating ice, for example, while others munch on fish popsicles
  • Paki especially enjoys the “water massage,” during which caregivers spray water from a hose for the seals to swim through
  • Ola is known for vocalizing a unique “Baahhhh” sound, almost like that of farm animals, to get the attention of her trainers
  • Nani spends the most time with her toys
  • Each meal is prepared fresh daily and hand-fed to the seals. Favorite snacks include herring (which some of the seals prefer to eat tail-first)
  • Monk seals, when sleeping, can stay underwater for 20 minutes
  • They can dive to depths over 1,800 feet

Interested in a more intimate look at the Hawaiian monk seal? Join the Minnesota Zoo on a Travel EdVenture (educational adventure) to Hawaii this spring for a chance to study the unique creature in its natural habitat.

(Above information obtained from this press release, and this Minnesota Zoo website’s section devoted monk seals)