Bear brain surgery

Source:, Photograph courtesy Matt Hunt
Champa, a three-year-old Asiatic black bear, has made medical history. She is the first bear in the world to have undergone brain surgery. Romain Pizzi, a veterinarian in Scotland, treated this bear for hydrocephalus - also known as 'water on the brain'.
Since she was a young bear, Champa has lived in a sanctuary in Laos run by Free the Bears. This Australian organisation protects bears that have been confiscated from wildlife traffickers. Because the bile of the Asiatic black bear is considered valuable for traditional Chinese and Korean medicine, these bears have been added to the IUCN Red List as a vulnerable species.

From the time she was very young, Champa had a protruding forehead, and she had difficulty socializing with other bears. Her growth slowed, her eyesight worsened, and her behaviour became unpredictable. She was diagnosed with hydrocephalus, a malady also seen in humans, in which cerebrospinal fluid is overproduced or its circulation through the cavities of the brain is blocked. In many countries, a wild animal with hydrochephalus would be euthanised, but this was not an option in Laos, a country with a Buddhist tradition. The organisation contacted Pizzi, a South African veterinary surgeon working in Edinburgh. He employed a laparoscopic technique, introducing instruments through tiny openings and operating with the aid of cameras. Although Pizzi had had experience with bears, sea lions, reindeer, jaguars and other animals, he had never before performed brain surgery on a bear. Despite the risks involved, and because Champa was truly suffering from her condition, he and the organisation decided to proceed with the operation.

Pizzi prepared himself thoroughly for his work under primitive conditions. During a six-hour operation, he placed a shunt to redirect excess fluid from the brain to the abdominal cavity. The following day, Champa seemed like a completely different bear: she was able to lift her head, and she looked directly at staff members. Six weeks later, Champa was active, could interact more socially with the other bears, and had resumed growth. Pizzi realises that saving this one bear will not make or break the survival of her species, but the truth remains that the life of this bear has been vastly improved. The veterinarian also learned from the experience and can apply this knowledge in the treatment of other animals.