Brain Surgery Performed on a Bear for the First Time

Champa the bear has made a swift recovery following surgery at her bear sanctuary in Laos

An Asiatic black bear, also known as a moon bear
An Asiatic black bear, also known as a moon bear Gregory Moine

Champa, a three-year-old Asiatic black bear from Laos, recently became the first bear ever to undergo brain surgery. Champa lives at a bear sanctuary for animals rescued from the illegal wildlife trade, but she’s never acted like the other bears, National Geographic reports:

Rescued as a cub, Champa stood out from the start: She had a protruding forehead and had trouble socializing with the other bears at the sanctuary. Over time, her growth slowed, her behavior became more erratic, and her vision faded.

Champa was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, which means “water on the brain” and occurs when too much spinal fluid fills the brain’s cavities. Humans can undergo an operation to take care of the problem, but standard procedure for animals is euthanasia.

Buddhist countries like Laos, however, frown on euthanasia. Instead, the keepers called upon the services of a South African veterinarian, who decided to create a small incision in Champa’s skull to try and find the problem, NatGeo writes.

The six-hour procedure began on the morning of February 25. Pizzi drilled a small hole behind one of the sedated bear’s ears, using an ultrasound probe to confirm that Champa was in fact hydrocephalic. Pizzi then inserted a thin tube through the hole into the brain and, guided by the camera, threaded the tube under her skin to her abdomen. The tube, which will remain in place indefinitely, is designed to drain excess cerebrospinal fluid into the abdominal cavity, where it can be easily absorbed into the body.

While the procedure went reasonably smoothly, Pizzi did have to improvise: At one point, a medical pump short-circuited in the high humidity. Pizzi resorted to a mattress pump instead to keep Champa’s abdomen inflated.

When she woke the next morning, the keepers noticed immediate improvements. She seemed more alert than before and could fully raise her head, which previously was weighted down by all that excess fluid. Six weeks after the surgery, Champa’s become much more social and is gaining weight. While she’ll never be returned to the wild, keepers are reassured to know that she’s no longer in any pain. ”Operating on one bear won’t save bears from extinction, and making life better for one bear won’t change the world,” the veterinarian Pizzi, said in an interview with NatGeo. “But the world of that one bear is changed forever.”

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