Como Zoo cougar is navigating a new world — without eyes 

A cougar is sedated after eye surgery
Jasper, a cougar who was orphaned in the wild and brought to St. Paul's Como Park Zoo & Conservatory in 2018, is seen sedated after undergoing an enucleation, or removal of his eyes. Jasper suffers from progressive retinal atrophy.
Courtesy of Como Park Zoo & Conservatory

You may notice something odd if you visit Jasper, the 4-year-old California cougar in the Como Zoo’s big cats exhibit in St. Paul. 

His eyes no longer open. 

Veterinarians surgically removed his eyes over the weekend, the latest effort to deal with the 120-pound cat’s progressive retinal atrophy, a genetic condition that had slowly blinded him and was starting to threaten his health. 

Jasper’s eyes had been getting progressively more clouded in recent years and exams indicated there were serious problems in the back of his eyes as well, said Jill Erzar, a senior zookeeper at Como.

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Corneal implants initially provided some improvement, she said, but more recently “we’ve noticed that he had a little more trouble navigating his habitat, he became a really messy eater all of a sudden, like he couldn’t really see where the food was. … When we looked while he was immobilized, there was zero blood vessel activity. So at that point, it’s probably been about six months now, he’s been completely unseeing.”

A cougar with cloudy eyes
Jasper, a cougar at St. Paul's Como Park Zoo, suffers from progressive retinal atrophy. Experts believed he had no eyesight left -- and that his eyes were causing irritation -- so zookeepers decided to perform an enucleation, or removal of Jasper's eyes. He's seen here before the surgery.
Courtesy of Como Park Zoo & Conservatory

But that blindness wasn’t why veterinarians removed Jasper’s eyes and sewed his eyelids shut. 

It turns out that when cats don’t see, other things happen.

“We noticed a lot of discharge from his eyes, we noticed his eyelids were super swollen,” Erzar told MPR News. “You and I, when we’re out in the environment and the wind’s blowing or there’s pollen in the air, we’d close our eyes, we can do that voluntarily.” But she said that doesn’t happen — at least not as much — with a blind cat. 

Medication could treat the swelling, but would require frequent medical care and regular anesthetization for Jasper. In the end, veterinarians and zoo officials decided the best course of action would be to simply do a double enucleation: surgically remove both of his eyes. 

A cougar after undergoing eye surgery
Jasper is seen after undergoing an enucleation, or removal of his eyes.
Courtesy of Como Park Zoo & Conservatory

Veterinary ophthalmologist Melissa Lively, who works at the Animal Eye Specialty Center in Andover, did the surgery. She had been treating and monitoring Jasper for years, and said his condition is actually common in domestic pets as well. 

As radical a procedure as that may seem, Jasper seems to be taking the surgery literally in stride. He roams around the enclosure with the zoo’s female cougar, Ruby. Jasper is clearly intimately familiar with his surroundings, climbing the 20-foot artificial cliff in his enclosure, and jumping down to an access door to get food and medication. If his eyelids were not sewn shut, you might not realize he couldn’t see. 

Still, his steps are more tentative than Ruby’s — he often puts a paw down briefly to feel the space ahead of him before putting weight on a limb. He is clearly stopping and listening carefully to the sounds around him. Erzar said she thinks Ruby understands his condition and “helps” him, at least as much as a cougar can have such intention. “Every once in a while, they’ll come from the top to the bottom together...” Erzar says. “I do think she recognizes that he’s not a seeing animal.” 

The two, by the way, are not mates. The zoological industry’s species plan for cougars generally discourages captive breeding, in part because of longstanding Como Zoo staff advocacy. There is a surplus of cougars available in the U.S. because adult females in the wild are often killed for preying on farm animals or hit by vehicles, leaving plenty of orphan cougar cubs to be cared for in zoos. 

Both Jasper and Ruby are orphans from California and about the same age, although Ruby is noticeably smaller. They are likely to live another decade or more in captivity. 

So, why, if there are plenty of cougars available, go to the trouble of extensive and expensive veterinary care for a cougar that will have to live most of his life without sight, whether he likes it or not? Why not euthanize him? 

“What I would say is Jasper’s an ambassador for his species,” Erzar says. “And one of the things that zoos have an amazing platform to do is teach us about empathy. I would argue that Jasper being blind — there’s enough kids out there and enough humans out there that understand that, and there’s a new connection: ‘I know, I understand blindness. He’s blind. I understand him a little bit better now. Some of the things that affect us can also affect them.’”

A woman stands in front of a cage.
Senior zookeeper Jill Erzar stands in front of the enclosure for Como Zoo's cougars, as Jasper, the zoo's male cougar, enjoys the morning sun behind her on Tuesday. Jasper is recovering from surgery to remove both his eyes after a degenerative disease blinded him.
Tim Nelson | MPR News

Lively, the doctor who did the surgery, said that while blindness might kill a cougar in the wild, cats are incredibly adaptable and will shift to rely on other senses. She said that visitors likely didn’t even notice that Jasper had gone blind as he moved around the large cat habitat before the surgery. 

“I think he’s a great example, of how well he adapts to this disability, that it really isn’t a disability for him,” Lively said in an interview with MPR News. “He can basically live a very, very normal, comfortable life here.” 

You can see Jasper, even if he can’t see you, any day at the Como Park Zoo & Conservatory, open year-round in St. Paul.