Over the past three decades, Ara Mirzaian has fitted braces for everyone from Paralympics 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 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, as she was a newborn baby of 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 a tour to meet Msituni, who walked alongside the other giraffes without a hitch. “Sure, all I did was online and study giraffes 24/7 until we got here.”
Turn to professionals who treat people
Zoos are increasingly turning to medical professionals who treat people to find solutions for sick animals. The collaboration was especially useful in the field of prosthetics and orthotics. 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 Hanger team in California had orthotics 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.
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 film Dolphin Story†
But Msituni was a definite learning curve for everyone, including Matt Kinney, a senior veterinarian for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance responsible for the giraffe’s case.
“We used to do casts and bandages and things like that. But something as elaborate as this brace she got, that’s something we really had to turn to our human [medicine] colleagues for,” Kinney said.
Hyperextended joint bones
Msituni suffered from hyperextended carpi – wrist-joint bones in the front limbs of giraffes, which are more like arms. As she overcompensated, the second anterior limb also began to hyperextend. Her hind leg joints were also weak, but could be corrected with specialized hoof extenders.
Since she weighed more than 55 kilograms at birth, the abnormality took a 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 they kept slipping off. Then Msituni wore medical braces for people that were adapted for her long legs. But in the end Msituni broke one.
In order 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 crooked spots to match her fur.
“We just donned the giraffe pattern to make it fun,” Mirzaian said. “We do this with kids all the time. They get to choose superheroes, or their favorite team and we 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.
All told, Msituni 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 that 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.”