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Mike Terry, Deseret News
Dr. Nicole MacLaren, a veterinary ophthalmologist, cares for Ajani, an African black-footed penguin from the Idaho Falls zoo.

Ajani doesn't just have happy feet, he has happy eyes now, too.

That's because the 14-week-old African black-footed penguin, blind since birth due to cataracts, was able to see for the first time Thursday.

Nicole MacLaren, a veterinary ophthalmologist at Eye Care for Animals in Salt Lake City, performed successful bilateral cataract surgery on the penguin, a resident of the Tautphaus Park Zoo in Idaho Falls.

"It went very well," MacLaren said of the surgery. It took only about 10 to 15 minutes per eye, but she noted that with animals it takes much longer for preparation and anesthesia.

How soon did the penguin know he could see?

"We dangled some string in front of him and he bit at it," MacLaren said.

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MacLaren said she donated her time for the operation because zoos are almost always short of funding for such services.

The Tautphaus Park Zoo has been exhibiting penguins for 11 years and participates in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums African Penguin Species Survival Plan. It successfully raised eight penguin chicks in 2008. Ajani came to Utah because Eye Care for Animals is the nearest surgery center to his home.

The zoo is Idaho's largest with more than 350 animals, including wallaby, snow leopards, lemurs, tamarins and amur tigers.

MacLaren said animal eye surgery is very rewarding. "It's fabulous because you see instant results." She also does frequent surgeries on dogs with cataracts, typically due to diabetes complications.

E-mail: lynn@desnews.com