ESCONDIDO, Calif. — Ara Mirzaian has fitted braces for everyone from Paralympics to children with scoliosis over the past three decades. 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 her front leg bent the wrong way. Safari park staff feared she could die if they didn’t correct the condition immediately, leaving her unable to feed and roam the habitat.
But they had no experience placing a baby giraffe in braces. That proved to be especially challenging, considering she was a newborn 5 feet-10 inches tall (178 centimeters) and was getting bigger every day. So they reached out to orthotic experts at the Hanger Clinic, where Mirzaian had his first-ever animal patient.
“It was pretty surreal when I first heard about it,” Mirzaian told The Associated Press this week on tour to meet Msituni, who walked alongside the other giraffes without a hitch. “Sure, all I did was go online and study giraffes for about 24 hours a day until we got here.”
Zoos are increasingly turning to medical professionals who treat people to find solutions for sick animals. Earlier this year, Florida ZooTampa teamed up with similar experts to successfully replace the beak of a cancer-stricken great hornbill with a 3D-printed prosthesis. The collaboration was especially useful in the field of prosthetics and orthotics.
The Hanger team in California had insoles for a cyclist and kayaker who both won medals at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil and made a brace for a marathon runner with multiple sclerosis who raced on seven continents.
And in 2006, a Hanger team in Florida created a prosthesis for a bottlenose dolphin who had lost its tail after becoming entangled in ropes from a crab trap. Their story inspired the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale”.
But this was a definite learning curve for everyone, including Matt Kinney, a San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance senior veterinarian responsible for Msituni’s case.
“We often do plasters and bandages and stuff. But something as bulky as this brace she got, we really had to turn to our human (drug) colleagues for that,” Kinney said.
Msituni suffered from hyperextended carpi – wrist-joint bones in the front limbs of giraffes, which are more like arms. As she overcompensated, the second front limb also began to hyperextend. Her hind leg joints were also weak but could be corrected with specialized hoof extenders.
And since she weighed more than 55 pounds at birth, the deformity took 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 re-sewn but kept slipping off. Then Msituni wore medical braces for people adapted for her long legs. But in the end, Msituni broke one.
For the custom stirrups to work, they must have a range of motion but be durable, so Hanger teamed up with a company that makes horse stirrups.
Using molded profiles from the giraffe’s legs, it took eight days to create the carbon-graphite braces with the animal’s signature pattern of shady spots to match her fur.
“We just donned the giraffe pattern to make it fun,” Mirzaian said. “We always do that with children. They can choose superheroes or their favorite team, and we’ll print it on their reinforcement. So why not do it with a giraffe?”
In the end, Msituni only needed one brace. The other leg corrected itself with the medical brace.
When they put her under the custom braces, Mirzaian was so moved by the beauty of the animal that he gave her a hug.
“It was just amazing to see such a big, beautiful creature lying in front of me,” he said.
After 10 days in the custom braces, the problem was resolved.
She had braces for 39 days from the day she was born. She stayed in the animal hospital the whole time. Then she was slowly introduced to her mother and others in the herd. Her mother never took her back, but another female giraffe has adopted her, as it were, and she is now running like the other giraffes.
Mirzaian hopes to hang a photo of the baby giraffe in her patterned braces so the children he treats will be inspired 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.”