Twenty-five years ago, Patti Williams was an assistant city attorney. She wound up representing a couple of elephants found in a circus truck parked outside a local hotel, where they were in ill health. Williams brought legal action to confiscate the elephants, one of whom, Irene, pictured here, is still at the zoo, although she is having some eye issues at the moment. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

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As people get older, their eyesight isn’t what it used to be; so, too, it goes with Irene, the 55-year-old Asian elephant at the ABQ BioPark Zoo.

Zoo veterinary staff have known for years that Irene suffers from lens luxation, a condition in which the lens in the eye is dislocated from its normal position, causing discomfort and blurry vision, Dr. Carol Bradford, the zoo’s senior veterinarian said Monday.

However, more recent complications may cause Irene to lose her eye completely.

The luxation in Irene’s left eye caused the lens initially to move to the back of her eye. About two months ago, Bradford said, the lens was found to have shifted to the front of the eye.

A procedure was planned in which Irene would be mildly sedated and a veterinary eye specialist would manually manipulate the eye in an attempt to reposition the lens.

During an examination Friday, it was learned that Irene had developed a corneal ulcer and her intraocular pressure had increased – essentially glaucoma, Bradford said.

Consequently, the eye manipulation procedure could not be performed and, instead, Irene will be reevaluated on Nov. 4 by specialists in the field of mega-vertebrate anesthesia and veterinary ophthalmology, who will determine the next course of action, Bradford said.

Among the possibilities are pushing on the eye to reposition the lens, removal of the lens completely and “removal of the eye if there is significant disease,” she said.

While some institutions that care for animals have occasionally seen cataracts in the eyes of aging elephants, far less common is lens luxation, she said.

At 55, Irene has already surpassed the average 46-year lifespan of an Asian elephant. She has lived at the ABQ BioPark Zoo since being removed from a circus truck in Albuquerque in 1997. The trailer in which she was being transported was parked in the hot summer sun outside a hotel near the airport when two police officers on bicycle patrol detected a strong odor and noticed what appeared to be urine seeping from the back of the slightly rocking trailer.

Fearing the trailer might contain human cargo, the officers instructed the two young men driving it to open the back. Inside, they found eight llamas and three female elephants – one of them dead. Irene and an African elephant, Donna, were grossly underweight, ill and in distress.

Coincidentally, members of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums were attending a conference inside that very hotel and, on learning of the events unfolding outside, the outraged AZA attendees asked the then-director of the BioPark Zoo, who was attending the conference, to intervene. He contacted the Albuquerque City Attorney’s Office, requesting that the truck not leave with the animals.

Thus began a legal battle that ultimately freed the animals from a life in the circus.

In 2003, Donna was transferred to the Disney Animal Kingdom in Florida to live with a herd of other African elephants. Irene remained in Albuquerque, where she lives with a herd of other Asian elephants, including Rosie, Alice and Albert.