ESCONDIDO, Calif. (AP) — For the past three decades, Ara Mirzaian has customized braces for everyone from Paralympians to children with scoliosis. But Msituni was a patient like no other — a newborn giraffe.
The calf was born on February 1 at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, north of San Diego, with its front legs bent the wrong way. Safari park staff feared she could die if they didn’t correct the condition immediately, which could prevent her from nursing and walking around the habitat.
But they had no experience putting braces on a baby giraffe. This proved particularly challenging as she was a 178cm newborn and was getting taller by the day. So they turned to orthotics experts at the Hanger Clinic, where Mirzaian got his very first animal patient.
“It was pretty surreal when I first heard about it,” Mirzaian told The Associated Press this week during a tour to meet Msituni, who strutted alongside the other giraffes with no problem. “Of course I just went online and studied giraffes 24/7 until we got out of here.”
Zoos are increasingly turning to medical professionals who treat people to find solutions for sick animals. The cooperation in the field of prosthetics and orthotics was particularly helpful. Earlier this year, Florida-based ZooTampa partnered with similar experts to successfully replace the beak of a cancer-stricken great hornbill with a 3D-printed prosthetic.
The Hanger team in California provided orthotics for a cyclist and a kayaker, both of whom won medals at the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil, and a custom orthotic for a marathon runner with multiple sclerosis who has raced on seven continents.
And in 2006, a Hanger team in Florida created a prosthetic for a bottlenose dolphin that lost its tail after becoming tangled in ropes from a crab trap. Her story inspired the 2011 film Dolphin Tale.
But this was a definite learning curve for everyone, including Matt Kinney, a senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance who is on Msituni’s case.
“We usually put on casts and bandages and stuff. But with something as substantial as this brace that was provided to her, we really had to reach out to our human medicine (medical) colleagues,” Kinney said.
Msituni suffered from overstretched carpi – wrist bones in giraffes’ front legs that are more like arms. As she overcompensated, the second anterior limb also began to overstretch. Her hind leg joints were also weak, but could be corrected with special hoof lengtheners.
And weighing over 120 pounds at birth, the abnormality was already taking its toll on her joints and bones.
While the custom braces were being built, Kinney first bought post-operative knee braces from Target, which he cut up and re-stitched, but they kept slipping off. Msituni then wore medical braces for humans, modified for her long legs. But eventually Msituni broke one.
In order for the custom braces to work, they would need to have a range of motion but be durable, so Hanger worked with a company that makes horse pants.
Using molds of the giraffe’s legs, it took eight days to create the carbon-graphite suspenders, which featured the animal’s distinctive pattern of crooked spots to match its fur.
“We dressed up the giraffe pattern to make it fun,” Mirzaian said. “We do this all the time with kids. You can pick superheroes or your favorite team and we’ll imprint it on your braces. So why not with a giraffe?”
In the end, Msituni only needed braces. The other leg corrected itself with the medical splint.
As they were placed underneath her to fit the custom braces, Mirzaian was so touched by the animal’s beauty that he hugged her.
“It was just incredible to see such a big, beautiful creature just lying there in front of me,” he said.
After 10 days of customization, the problem was resolved.
In all, she has worn braces for 39 days since birth. She stayed at the animal hospital the whole time. After that, she was slowly introduced to her mother and others in the herd. Her mum never took her back, but another female giraffe adopted her, so to speak, and she now walks like the other giraffes.
Mirzaian hopes to hang a picture of the baby giraffe in her patterned braces to inspire the children he treats to wear theirs.
“It was the coolest thing to see an animal like that walking in braces,” he said. “It feels good to know that we saved a giraffe’s life.”