Eye surgery on a gorilla? It’s a very delicate operation. Not just because of the obvious reasons — working with a large primate under anesthesia — but also because gorillas have extremely thin corneas. Veterinary ophthalmologist Ruth Marrion frequently performs corneal surgeries on dogs and cats, but — as you might imagine — usually not on gorillas. Marrion, who provides veterinary ophthalmology services to Zoo New England, spent hours prepping for the procedure — one false move could have perforated the animal’s eye. “It was my version of parachuting off a cliff,” she says. “Definitely an adrenaline rush.” The surgery on Gigi, a western lowland gorilla, was successful. For Marrion, also a staff ophthalmologist at Bulger Veterinary Hospital, it was satisfying to see the patient be able to return to her habitat.
Marrion typically spends her days at the North Andover vet hospital, treating domestic animals for injuries and diseases of the eye. The Globe spoke with her about various vet-related subjects, including why your dog might need vision care.
“Say ‘vet ophthalmologist’ and some think canine eyeglasses or contact lenses. There’s a canine eye chart that jokingly shows bones, fire hydrants, and cats instead of letters. But how do we know how well a dog can see? The answer is that we don’t know and, frankly, who cares? They don’t have to drive or pay the bills. I’m not there to make eyeglasses for dogs but to make sure they don’t have any pain associated with eye disease. The great majority of the cases I see are due to genetic eye disease in purebred dogs. Bulldogs, chow chows, and shi peis have problems with eyelids that turn in and rub on the eye; Chinese Pugs and Pekingese are often bug-eyed and blink poorly, so [they] develop corneal ulcers and dry eye. And terrier breeds can develop lens luxation — the lens becomes loose and starts bouncing around the eye. These are just a few examples.
“Owners will bring in a pet for squinting, discharge, and redness. My primary concern is improving a pet’s quality of life, removing discomfort. Patients are referred from a general practitioner, so clients have been self-selected for dedication to their pet, and they are more willing to spend time and money treating their animals.
“When I first became board certified, vet specialty services were less common. I was only the 200th vet ophthalmologist in the field. Now there are 500, and that number is increasing. I am also fortunate to be the ophthalmologist for the New England Aquarium. We have removed all the lenses in the harbor seals due to cataracts, as well as [lenses in] a handful of the penguins. Performing surgery on a seal is a very rare opportunity indeed. That, of course, and the gorilla.”