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First-Ever Brain Surgery on a Bear


Story at-a-glance -

  • An Asiatic black bear living in a sanctuary in northern Laos is a medical pioneer. She’s the first bear ever to undergo brain surgery.
  • Champa the bear was thought to have hydrocephalus based on her appearance and symptoms. As she matured, the disorder became more pronounced and she suffered persistent, intolerable headaches.
  • Buddhist beliefs and wildlife protection laws in Laos do not allow for euthanasia, so sanctuary workers called in a vet with special surgical skills to see if he could help poor Champa.

By Dr. Becker

Champa, an Asiatic black bear living in a sanctuary in northern Laos, is the first bear in the world to undergo brain surgery.

Champa has lived most of her three years at the sanctuary, which is run by an Australian nonprofit organization called Free the Bears. The sanctuary is home to bears that have been rescued from poachers. The Asiatic black bear, also called the moon bear, is listed as vulnerable by the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

Champa Suffers from ‘Water on the Brain’ (Hydrocephalus)

Even as a cub, Champa was different from others of her species. Her forehead protruded, and according to her rescuers at the sanctuary, she didn’t socialize well with other bears. As she matured, her rate of growth slowed, she developed problems with her vision, and her behavior grew increasingly unpredictable.

Staff and veterinarians at the sanctuary thought Champa might have hydrocephalus (“water on the brain”), which is caused by problems with cerebrospinal fluid in the brain. The disease causes incredibly painful, constant headaches.

If Champa lived in a Western country, a diagnosis of hydrocephalus would very likely result in a recommendation that the bear be put down. But Buddhist beliefs and Laos wildlife protection laws took euthanasia off the table as an option to end Champa’s suffering.

Preparing for Risky Surgery

Veterinarian Romain Pizzi, who works at the Edinburgh Zoo in Scotland as well as at a national wildlife rescue center, was called in by Free the Bears to help Champa.

Dr. Pizzi has performed surgery on a variety of wild animals, including bears, jaguars, seals, and reindeer. But no one had ever attempted brain surgery on a bear. The procedure carries significant risk, but the alternative -- allowing Champa to suffer an excruciating death – was out of the question.

Before attempting the surgery, Dr. Pizzi studied Asiatic black bear skulls and the brains of other hydrocephalic animals. He also consulted with pediatric surgeons. He brought equipment from Edinburgh to Laos, anticipating hot, humid conditions and undependable electricity. He was also proceeding on only the assumption Champa’s problem was hydrocephalus, since there were no MRI machines in all of Laos to confirm the suspected diagnosis.

Champa’s Surgery

In what would be a six-hour procedure using a laparoscope, after Champa was sedated, Pizzi first drilled a small hole behind one of her ears. He then used an ultrasound probe to confirm a diagnosis of hydrocephalus. Laparoscopic surgery is more expensive than traditional surgery and requires specialized training. Dr. Pizzi is one of only a handful of veterinarians who use the technique in wildlife surgery.

Next, Pizzi fed a thin tube through the hole into Champa’s brain, and guided by the camera, threaded the tube along under her skin all the way to her abdomen. The purpose of the tube is to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid into the bear’s abdominal cavity, where it will be absorbed by the body. The tube will remain in place indefinitely.

The procedure wasn’t without its challenges. At one point a medical pump stopped working due to the high humidity, so Pizzi improvised by switching to a mattress pump to keep Champa’s vital signs stabilized.

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Champa’s Headaches Resolve

Veterinarians kept a vigil at Champa’s side the night of her surgery.

The following morning when she awoke, Champa looked and seemed like a different bear. She was able to raise her head and look directly at sanctuary staff. Before the surgery, her too-large head pressed down on her neck. According to Matt Hunt of Free the Bears, “We can’t know if her vision is fully recovered, but everyone certainly believes her vision has improved.”

Six weeks after the surgery, Champa was significantly more active and social with other bears, and was gaining weight. She has suffered some permanent brain damage from the fluid accumulation in her brain, and she must live the rest of her life in captivity. But it’s obvious to sanctuary staff and her veterinarians that Champa is no longer suffering from excruciating headaches.

"Operating on one bear won't save bears from extinction, and making life better for one bear won't change the world," said Pizzi. "But the world of that one bear is changed forever."

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