A baby giraffe born in a US zoo with a life-threatening leg condition has been fitted with custom medical-grade leg splints to help him walk.
- Msituni was born with hyperextended carpi – which caused her front limb to bend the wrong way
- San Diego Zoo Safari Park vets contacted orthotics experts to create a leg brace
- Using cast iron casts of the giraffe’s legs, it took eight days to make the carbon graphite braces which helped fix the problem in 10 days
Msituni was born on Feb. 1 at San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, north San Diego, with her front limb bent the wrong way.
Safari park staff feared she might die if they didn’t correct the condition immediately, which could prevent her from breastfeeding and walking around the habitat.
But they had no experience fitting a baby giraffe in a splint.
This proved to be especially difficult given that she was a 178 centimeter newborn and was growing every day.
So they contacted orthotics experts at the Hanger Clinic, where Ara Mirzaian landed her very first animal patient.
Over the past three decades, Ara Mirzaian has fitted braces for everyone from Paralympians to children with scoliosis, but never animals, let alone a newborn giraffe.
“It was quite surreal when I first heard about it,” Mr Mirzaian told The Associated Press this week while on a tour to meet Msituni, who strutted alongside the other giraffes without any problem.
Zoos are increasingly turning to the medical professionals who care for people to find solutions for sick animals.
The collaboration has been particularly useful in the area of prosthetics and orthotics.
Earlier this year, ZooTampa in Florida teamed up with like-minded experts to successfully replace the beak of a cancer-stricken great hornbill with a 3D-printed prosthesis.
Veterinarians looking for outside help
In 2006, the Hanger Clinic team created a prosthesis for a Florida bottlenose dolphin that lost its tail after becoming entangled in the ropes of a crab trap. Their story inspired the 2011 film “Dolphin Tale”.
But it was a definite learning curve for everyone, including Matt Kinney, a senior San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance veterinarian in charge of Msituni’s case.
Msituni suffered from hyperextension of the carpus – the wrist joint bones in giraffes’ forelimbs, which are more like arms.
As she overcompensated, the second front limb also began to hyperextend. His rear leg joints were also weak but could be corrected with specialized hoof extenders.
And given that she weighed more than 55 kilograms at birth, the anomaly was already taking its toll on her joints and bones.
Store bought straps not up to par
While building the custom braces, Kinney first purchased post-surgery knee braces from Target which he cut and sewed, but they kept slipping.
Next, Msituni wore medical-grade braces for humans that were modified for his long legs. But eventually Msituni broke one.
For custom orthotics to work, they would need to have range of motion but be durable, so Hanger Clinic worked with a company that makes orthotics for horses.
Using cast casts of the giraffe’s legs, it took eight days to make the carbon graphite suspenders which featured the animal’s distinct twisted spot pattern to match its fur.
“We put the giraffe pattern on just to make it fun,” Mirzaian said.
In the end, Msituni only needed one device. The other leg corrected with the medical grade splint.
When they put her under the custom corset, Mr. Mirzaian was so moved by the beauty of the animal that he hugged her.
Msituni now operational with other giraffes
After 10 days in the custom brace the problem was fixed.
In total, she wore braces for 39 days from birth and stayed in the animal hospital the entire time.
After that, she was slowly introduced to her mother and the other members of the herd. Her mom never took her back, but another female giraffe adopted her, so to speak, and she now runs like other giraffes.
Mr Mirzaian hopes to hang a picture of the baby giraffe in his patterned corset so the children he treats will be inspired to wear theirs.
“It was the coolest thing to see an animal like that walking in a brace,” he said.