Blank Park Zoo
Zookeeper Shannon Osterholm administers eye drops to Barnaby. The 500-pound Aldabra tortoise has suffered an off-and-on pool of blood between his cornea and iris for the past year.
updated 5/12/2010 3:30:41 PM ET 2010-05-12T19:30:41

Barnaby, the 70-or-so-year-old Aldabra tortoise at Blank Park Zoo, has a problem.

In his left eye, which is shiny and black like an onyx gemstone, there's been an off-and-on pool of blood between his cornea and iris for the past year. Combined with cataracts, it means Barnaby struggles with his vision. Stand on his left side, and the tortoise won't see you.

And so recently, zookeeper Shannon Osterholm opened the gate to the tortoise shack, which is near the penguins and sea lions. Barnaby, 500 pounds of leathery black skin and hard brown shell, stretched out his neck.

"Hi, handsome!" she said.

The zookeepers and veterinarians were here to perform an eye exam. Using high-frequency ultrasound, they would snap a picture of the inside of Barnaby's eye. Maybe they'd keep on with steroid eye drops. Maybe they'd perform surgery.

"It could be 20 different things," said Blank Park Zoo veterinarian June Olds. "This is just a fact-finding mission. (But) as far as we know, nobody's done this with a tortoise before without anesthesia."

Anesthesia, she explained, was too risky.

It was humid inside the shack, nearly 80 degrees, just how Barnaby likes it. Zookeeper Rachael Cohen crouched and rubbed Barnaby's outstretched neck. He nuzzled her - "tortoise kisses," she said.

Caring for zoo seniors Barnaby has a special place at Blank Park Zoo. He's the only original animal here from the zoo's opening in 1966, and adults remember riding him when they were kids. (The zoo no longer allows that.)

And the big guy's got personality: calm, cool, curious.

"He's a 500-pound lap tortoise," Cohen said.

Aldabra tortoises live in herds and aren't aggressive. They're rare, too. The species is the last surviving member of a group of giant tortoises from Madagascar and the Seychelles Islands. Meat-starved sailors over-hunted other species to extinction, but the Aldabra tortoise hung on. Some reports have Aldabra tortoises living to 200 years old. If that's the case with Barnaby, his eyes had better stay healthy for another century.

In the tortoise shack, Cohen stroked Barnaby's neck while squeezing numbing eye drops. Barnaby stood still. Zookeepers have worked with Barnaby on this for months. With rewards of carrots and yams, they coaxed him into holding his neck out, then into being comfortable with having his eye touched.

Blank Park Zoo
Barnaby, the only original resident of the Blank Park Zoo, belongs to the last-surviving species of giant tortoises from Madagascar.
Jo-Ann McKinnon, a veterinary ophthalmologist with the Lloyd Veterinary Medical Center at Iowa State University, set up $125,000 of equipment on two plastic crates.

Barnaby was curious. He lurched toward the computer. The zookeepers blocked his path. They grabbed his shell and pulled him backward. He tried again; they tugged him back again. Soon, beads of sweat formed on zookeepers' foreheads.

Again, Barnaby pushed toward the computer.

"Watch out!" Osterholm said to McKinnon, who spread her arms to protect the equipment. Then, to Barnaby: "Stay! We forgot to teach him to stay."

They brought the ultrasound device to his eye. It didn't work. McKinnon had left a vital piece of equipment in Ames.

A few hours later, it was all systems go. The ultrasound only took a few minutes. The eye structure was normal - some scar tissue but mostly age-related changes. The veterinarians weren't sure of the cause, so they decided to just cut back his steroid drops and keep an eye on the bleeding.

"It's still a bit of the mystery, but it's a relief too," Olds said. "We didn't want to find something bad in there."

Barnaby had been stuck in the shack all morning. Afterward, he went outside, and he was happy.

The veterinarian, however, didn't have an entirely happy end to her visit. While the zookeepers were wrangling the tortoise, Barnaby stepped on Olds' toe.

"I think I'll feel it tomorrow," she said.

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