Fawn back in the wild after eye surgery

Wildlife rescue volunteer sees ‘Rocky’ through operation for cataracts
By: Bridget Jones, Journal Staff Writer
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Rocky, a local deer, was given the gift of sight during a groundbreaking surgery at U.C. Davis. On an August Sunday just before dusk, Diane Nicholas, a Gold Country Wildlife Rescue volunteer who specializes in deer rescue, received a call from two young girls who were house sitting for their neighbor just outside of Lincoln. The neighbor’s dog had been chasing a fawn and his mother. The mother had escaped, but the fawn hadn’t been so lucky. He had run into a fence, fell into a swimming pool and then collided back into the fence trying to escape. By the time Nicholas received the call, the fawn was on the ground. “So I drove out with all my paraphernalia,” Nicholas said. “He was down in the shrubbery. And this little guy, he was all cut up, but he was wild, like crazy wild.” Nicholas called the Loomis Basin Equine Medical Center and several veterinarians met her at the scene. After they got the fawn cleaned up they noticed not only was the fawn badly cut up, but he had a large abscess on his tongue. The veterinarians worked on him for about four-and-a-half hours and after several X-rays, discovered that he had also broken his nose running into the fence. Because of this accident and his fighting spirit, Nicholas named him Rocky. “I took him home, and the next morning I’m watching him and I thought, ‘There’s something not right about his eyes,”’ Nicholas said. “‘He’s not responding, for as scared as he is, he’s not looking at me.’” The Loomis Basin veterinarians discovered that Rocky had cataracts, a cloudy film over the lenses of the eyes, making him almost blind. Dr. Jill Higgins, one of the veterinarians at Loomis Basin, said Rocky had most likely had this sight impairment from birth. “Something went wrong with his eyes when he was a fetus,” Higgins said. “It’s not really known if (cataracts) are necessarily hereditary, but it’s congenital, which means it happened when he was developing.” Nicholas said she was determined to help Rocky, because she knew he wouldn’t survive in the wild. “You can’t send a blind fawn back out (to the wild),” Nicholas said. “Normally he would have been euthanized.” She began pitching the idea of cataract surgery to Dr. Nicola Pusterla, Higgins’ husband and an associate professor in equine internal medicine at U.C. Davis. Pusterla said he agreed it would be a good project for the U.C. Davis Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital because it was an unusual teaching opportunity. “We were talking about surgeries that are done in small animals … and I said, ‘I can always talk to the ophthalmologist, because it’s not common for us to see wild animals,’” Pusterla said. “This is a surgery that has never been done, reportedly, on a wild animal.” Pusterla did some research on the subject, and after a couple weeks, informed Nicholas that the hospital had agreed to perform the operation. While the surgery would have normally cost thousands of dollars, Pusterla said the hospital was able to lower the cost because it was such a groundbreaking case. In the end, the operation cost $600, which Nicholas paid out of pocket. During the two-hour surgery, which followed two hours of preparation time, Rocky continued to show his fighting side. “They started having some challenges, because I guess his blood pressure and his heart rate started to drop,” Nicholas said. “(The anesthesiologist) had to keep playing with the meds so he was sedated enough and didn’t come to. But if they gave him too much he started going the other direction, and then because he had been stressed, his temperature was really high. So, they had to cool his body down so he wouldn’t go into any seizures.” Dr. Seth Eaton, one of the ophthalmologists who performed Rocky’s surgery, said the removal of the cataracts themselves was fairly routine, and similar to operations he had performed in the past. “From beginning to end, his cataract surgery seemed to be very straightforward,” Eaton said. “The deer eye is similar enough to the horse eye. That made it similar to the cataract surgery of a horse.” Rocky’s post-surgery medication was also unique, because his wild nature prevented him from receiving eye drops, Nicholas said. “They had to figure out how to do injections when he was in surgery that would be time-released for a whole week,” Nicholas said. “Then they gave me tablets … that I had to crush up to feed to him. And that was kind of interesting, because he’s so smart. He ate it the first day … and then he was like ‘I’m not eating that.’” After a month of rehabilitation, Rocky had regained his sight. Nicholas released him back into the wild on Oct. 9. Pusterla said the results of this surgery really speak of Rocky’s strength and willingness to fight. “There was a lot of unknown in this case, but Rocky has shown that he defeats all barriers that are put in front of him,” Pusterla said. The Journal’s Bridget Jones can be reached at or comment at