The calf was born Feb. 1 at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escandida, north of San Diego, its front limb bent incorrectly. Safari park officials feared she could die if they did not immediately correct the condition, which could prevent her from caring for and walking around the habitat.
But they had no experience installing a giraffe in a harness. This proved particularly challenging, given that she was a newborn 5 feet 10 inches (178 centimeters) tall and grew taller every day. So they turned to orthopedics experts at the Hanger Clinic, where Mirzayan received his first animal patient.
“It was pretty surreal when I first heard about it,” Mirzayan told the Associated Press this week during a tour where he met Msituni, who had no problem playing alongside other giraffes. “Of course, all I did was go online and study giraffes around the clock until we came out here.”
Zoos are increasingly turning to health professionals who treat people to find solutions for sick animals. The collaboration was especially useful in the field of prosthetics and orthopedics. Earlier this year, ZooTampa in Florida teamed up with similar experts to successfully replace the beak of a cancer-carrying bird-carrier with a 3D-printed prosthesis.
The Hanger team in California had suitable orthopedic products for the cyclist and kayaker who won medals at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Brazil and set up a harness for a multiple sclerosis marathon runner who competed on races on seven continents.
And in 2006, the Hanger team from Florida created a prosthesis for a bottlenose dolphin that lost its tail after getting entangled in ropes from a crab trap. Their story inspired the 2011 film The Tale of the Dolphins.
But it was a definite learning curve for everyone, including Matt Keane, a senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance who was in charge of Msituni’s case.
“We usually applied plaster, bandages and other things. But something as wide as this bandage she was given is something we really had to turn to our colleagues (medicine) for, ”Keane said.
Msituni suffered from hyperstretched wrist joints in the forelimbs of giraffes, which are more like arms. As it overcompensated the second forelimb also began to hyperbend. Her hind leg joints were also weak, but they could be corrected with specialized hoof extensions.
And given the fact that at birth she weighed more than 100 pounds (55 pounds), the anomaly has already affected her joints and bones.
While individual braces were being made, Keaney first bought from Target postoperative knee pads, which he cut and sewed again, but they continued to slip. Msituni then wore medical braces for people that had been modified for her long legs. But in the end, Msituni broke one.
For custom braces to work, they need to have a range of motion but be sturdy, so Hanger worked with a company that makes harnesses for horses.
Using the giraffe’s foot casting, it took eight days to make carbon graphite brackets with a clear pattern of curved spots that matched her fur.
“We put on a giraffe pattern to have fun,” Mirzayan said. “We do it with the kids all the time. They choose superheroes or their favorite team, and we beat that off on their attachments. So why not do it with a giraffe?”
In the end, Msituni needed only one strap. The other leg was straightened with a medical bandage.
When she was placed under the harness, Mirzayan was so shocked 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 parentheses the problem has been fixed.
In all, she has been in braces for 39 days since her birth. She was in the animal hospital the whole time. After that, she was slowly introduced to her mother and others in the herd. Mom never took her back, but, so to speak, she was adopted by another female giraffe, and she now runs like other giraffes.
Mirzayan hopes to hang a photo of the giraffe in its patterned braces so that the children he treats will be inspired to wear them.
“It was the coolest thing – to see such an animal walking in a harness,” he said. “It’s nice to know we saved the giraffe’s life.”
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