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Deering falconer seeks revolutionary cataract surgery for falcon

  • A cataract can be seen in Banner the Lanner falcon's left eye during a visit o Fisherville Animal Hospital and Bird Clinic in Penacook for a surgery consult with George Messenger and Ruth Marrion on Friday afternoon, January 31, 2014. Nancy  and Jim Cowan, of the Deering-based New Hampshire School of Falconry, brought the young bird in after realizing that she was losing her sight. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    A cataract can be seen in Banner the Lanner falcon's left eye during a visit o Fisherville Animal Hospital and Bird Clinic in Penacook for a surgery consult with George Messenger and Ruth Marrion on Friday afternoon, January 31, 2014. Nancy and Jim Cowan, of the Deering-based New Hampshire School of Falconry, brought the young bird in after realizing that she was losing her sight.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • Nancy Cowan, left, and her husband Jim, center, chat with veterinarian George Messenger, of the Fisherville Animal Hospital and Bird Clinic in Penacook, in the clinic's waiting room on Friday afternoon, January 31, 2014. Messenger is one of about 100 veterinarians in the country who is board certified in avian and exotic medicine. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

    Nancy Cowan, left, and her husband Jim, center, chat with veterinarian George Messenger, of the Fisherville Animal Hospital and Bird Clinic in Penacook, in the clinic's waiting room on Friday afternoon, January 31, 2014. Messenger is one of about 100 veterinarians in the country who is board certified in avian and exotic medicine.

    (ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

  • A cataract can be seen in Banner the Lanner falcon's left eye during a visit o Fisherville Animal Hospital and Bird Clinic in Penacook for a surgery consult with George Messenger and Ruth Marrion on Friday afternoon, January 31, 2014. Nancy  and Jim Cowan, of the Deering-based New Hampshire School of Falconry, brought the young bird in after realizing that she was losing her sight. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)
  • Nancy Cowan, left, and her husband Jim, center, chat with veterinarian George Messenger, of the Fisherville Animal Hospital and Bird Clinic in Penacook, in the clinic's waiting room on Friday afternoon, January 31, 2014. Messenger is one of about 100 veterinarians in the country who is board certified in avian and exotic medicine. <br/><br/>(ANDREA MORALES / Monitor staff)

To Banner, the room probably looked bright white, with a bunch of tall, dark, blurry rectangles swaying and gliding around her.

But Banner, a three-year-old Lanner falcon, should have been able to see each eyelash on each face of the curious and concerned onlookers, watching as two veterinarians examined her eyes yesterday.

Hopefully, by the end of the month, she will regain her sight, and her purpose.

Banner belongs to the New Hampshire School of Falconry, run by Jim and Nancy Cowan in Deering.

About two years ago, Nancy Cowan started noticing that Banner was having trouble landing on her outstretched, gloved hand when she would return after chasing game. Banner would instead sort of dive in Cowan’s general direction – her sharp, strong talons pointed out.

As the fuzzy white fog developed in Banner’s eyes, Cowan realized the bird had cataracts and can’t see. Falcons usually live into their late teens and even to age 20, but a life that long, in the dark, would be no life at all for this bird, Cowan said.

“Falcons live by sight. They don’t have a sense of smell, their hearing is pretty normal, I don’t know what taste could possibly be for them – they live by sight,” she said.

“They see colors in ways we don’t see them. They can see huge distances. When we see the blur of a hummingbird’s wings, they see flap, flap, flap. Their eyes are their being.”

The Cowans brought Banner to see George Messenger, the veterinarian at Fisherville Animal Hospital and Bird Clinic in Penacook, a few weeks ago. Messenger is one of about 100 veterinarians in the country who are board certified in avian and exotic medicine.

He thought he knew of a way to save Banner’s sight. He had just recently met a veterinary ophthalmologist from Massachusetts who had experience working on the distinct eye structures of birds, specifically raptors.

Ruth Marrion works mainly on dogs and cats and other pets, but she also does volunteer work for Zoo New England and the New England Aquarium. That’s where she performed surgery on a great horned owl and a penguin.

Yesterday, she drove up from Massachusetts to examine Banner and confirm Messenger’s diagnosis.

And yes, she said, Banner looks like a good candidate for cataract surgery, and hopefully replacement lenses, which could make her a bit farsighted, “but that’s better than it is now,” Cowan said.

Marrion will spend some time doing research to get measurements for the lenses and then finding out whether a company that makes veterinary ophthalmology supplies can make lenses in the right size.

She’s pretty optimistic, and told Cowan she thinks she can return to Penacook before the end of February for the surgery.

She’ll come here, she said, so Messenger and his staff have all of their equipment and get to work in a familiar environment.

“The real rocket science here is the anesthesia,” she said.

Altogether, Banner should be under anesthesia for 20 to 25 minutes per eye.

Marrion will make a small incision in one of the bird’s corneas, then into the lens behind it through the pupil. She’ll dissolve the protein that has accumulated, creating that milky white fog, and suck it out with a vacuum. Then, she’ll insert the new artificial lens, and do the same on the other eye, if the anesthesiologists say it’s okay to keep Banner unconscious longer.

Both doctors have committed to performing the surgery at cost, saving the Cowans thousands of dollars. Partly it’s about the opportunity to do something rare. Messenger said he’s never assisted during an ophthalmologic surgery before.

Marrion has operated on the eyes of fewer than 12 birds, and only one raptor. All of the birds she has operated on have been zoo animals or pets, not working birds of prey.

“This is the type of thing I live for,” Marrion said. “I make my living doing dogs and cats, and I really love dogs and cats, but this is huge to have an opportunity like this. . . . I just like the challenge of the exotic animal, too. And this bird is really just two eyes and two wings, that’s all she is. So if all she has is her wings, (if) she doesn’t have her eyes, who is she?”

(Sarah Palermo can be reached at 369-3322 or spalermo@cmonitor.com or on Twitter @SPalermoNews.)

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