Return to limelight in sight for penguin after successful cataract operation

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Aoshiro waddles over to check out a camera at Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido.

NOBORIBETSU, Hokkaido – An elderly king penguin is making such good progress after a rare operation to remove cataracts and restore his eyesight that the public may get to see him again as soon as this month.

King Aoshiro is a 27-year-old male penguin living at Noboribetsu Marine Park Nixe. He underwent surgery while under general anesthesia, which is extremely unusual for a penguin of his advanced age.

Staffers noticed Aoshiro’s eyesight was deteriorating in the summer of 2019. He became unable to notice fish given as food, and he often bumped into other penguins while walking. Aoshiro gradually stopped reacting to the staffers and was diagnosed as having vision impairment due to cataracts at the end of 2021.

Aoshiro arrived at the marine park’s penguin section when it opened in 1998, making him the oldest penguin there. “He used to diligently lead the way during the penguin parade through the marine park,” said Atsushi Yoshinaka, head of the breeding department. “It was unbearable seeing him staying away from the other penguins and just staring at the ground while facing the wall in a corner of the enclosure.”

Cataract operations are commonly performed on cats and dogs, but it is rare for a penguin well past its average life expectancy of about 20 years in the wild to go under the knife. Even so, the staffers opted to go ahead with the surgery and anesthesia, even though there was a risk that Aoshiro might not survive the process.

“There was the option of doing nothing and letting Aoshiro live out his days like that, but we wanted to do something to improve his quality of life,” veterinarian Naoya Matsumoto said.

The about 90-minute operation was performed at the Rakuno Gakuen University Animal Medical Center in Ebetsu, Hokkaido, on July 8. Matsumoto, who was present during the operation, apparently knew it had been a success when Aoshiro awoke from the anesthetic and glanced around at his surroundings.

Aoshiro is still not allowed to swim while he recovers and remains under observation, but he is moving more energetically and checks for uneven floor areas when he waddles around.

“I’ll definitely cry when I see him swimming in the pool again,” a staffer at the marine park said.

Indeed, all the staff are eagerly awaiting the day when visitors can once again see a healthy Aoshiro together with his younger feathered friends.