Over the past three decades, Ara Mirzaian has fitted braces for everyone from Paralympic athletes to children with scoliosis. But Msituni was a patient like no other – a newborn giraffe.
The calf was born Feb. 1 at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, north of San Diego, with its 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 5 foot 10 inch (178 centimeter) newborn and growing every day. So they contacted orthotics experts at the Hanger Clinic, where Mirzaian landed his very first animal patient.
“It was pretty surreal when I first heard about it,” Mirzaian told The Associated Press this week while on a tour to meet Msituni, who strutted alongside the other giraffes without any problems. “Of course, all I did was go online and study giraffes 24/7 until we got here.”
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.
The Hanger, California team fitted orthotics for a cyclist and a kayaker who both won medals at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil and customized a brace for a marathon runner with multiple sclerosis who ran on seven continents .
And in 2006, a team from Hanger, Florida created a prosthesis for a bottlenose dolphin that lost its tail after becoming tangled 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.
“We usually put on casts and bandages and all that. But something so extensive, like this splint that was provided to him, is something that we really had to look to our human colleagues (doctors) for,” Kinney said.
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 100 pounds (55 kilos) at birth, the anomaly was already taking its toll on her joints and bones.
While the custom braces were being built, Kinney first bought 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 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. “We do this with the kids all the time. They can choose superheroes or their favorite team and we print it on their bracing. So why not do it with a giraffe?
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, Mirzaian was so moved by the beauty of the animal that he hugged her.
“It was just amazing to see such a big, beautiful creature lying in front of me,” he said.
After 10 days in the custom brace the problem was fixed.
In total, she wore braces for 39 days from the time she was born. She stayed in the animal hospital the whole 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.
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 splint,” he said. “It feels good to know that we saved the life of a giraffe.”
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS