Baby giraffe in US zoo fitted with custom leg braces to help it walk properly

A baby giraffe born in a US zoo with a life-threatening leg condition has been fitted with customised, human medical-grade leg braces to help her walk.

Msituni was born on February 1 at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, north of San Diego, with her front limb bending the wrong way.

Safari park staff feared she could die if they didn’t immediately correct the condition, which could prevent her from nursing and walking around the habitat.

But they had no experience with fitting a baby giraffe in a brace.

That proved especially challenging given she was a 178-centimetre newborn and growing taller every day.

So, they reached out to experts in orthotics at the Hanger Clinic, where Ara Mirzaian landed his very first animal patient.

Over the past three decades, Ara Mirzaian has fitted braces for everyone from Paralympians to children with scoliosis, but never animals, let alone a newborn giraffe.

Baby Msituni was born a towering 178 centimeters, weighing 55 kilograms.(AP: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance)

“It was pretty surreal when I first heard about it,” Mr Mirzaian told The Associated Press this week during a tour to meet Msituni, who was strutting alongside the other giraffes with no troubles.

Zoos are increasingly turning to medical professionals who treat people to find solutions for ailing animals.

The collaboration has been especially helpful in the field of prosthetics and orthotics.

Earlier this year, ZooTampa in Florida teamed up with similar experts to successfully replace the beak of a cancer-stricken great hornbill bird with a 3D-printed prosthetic.

Vets and experts fit a baby giraffe with leg braces.
Zoos are increasingly turning to medical professionals who treat people to find solutions for ailing animals.(AP: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance)

Vets seeking outside help

The Hanger Clinic team in 2006 created a prosthetic for a Florida bottlenose dolphin that had lost its tail after becoming tangled in ropes from a crab trap. Their story inspired the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale.”

But this was a definite learning curve for all, including Matt Kinney, a senior veterinarian for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance in charge of Msituni’s case.

Msituni suffered from hyperextended carpi — wrist joint bones in giraffes’ front limbs, which are more like arms.

As she overcompensated, the second front limb started to hyperextend as well. Her back leg joints also were weak but were able to be corrected with specialized hoof extenders.

And given that she weighed more than 55 kilograms at birth, the abnormality was already taking its toll on her joints and bones.

Close up of red leg braces on front legs of baby giraffe.
The orthotics specialist worked with a company that makes horse braces.(AP: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance)

Store-bought braces not up to scratch

While the custom braces were being built, Mr Kinney first bought post-surgery knee braces at Target that he cut up and re-sewed, but they kept slipping off.

Then Msituni wore medical-grade braces for humans that were modified for her long legs. But eventually Msituni broke one.

For the custom braces to work, they would need to have a range of motion but be durable, so Hanger Clinic worked with a company that makes horse braces.

Using cast moldings of the giraffe’s legs, it took eight days to make the carbon graphite braces that featured the animal’s distinct pattern of crooked spots to match her fur.

Baby giraffe standing with leg brace on leg.
In the end, baby Msituni only needed one brace as the other leg corrected itself with the medical grade brace.(AP: San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance)

“We put on the giraffe pattern just to make it fun,” Mr Mirzaian said.

In the end, Msituni only needed one brace. The other leg corrected itself with the medical-grade brace.

When they put her under to fit the custom brace, Mr Mirzaian was so moved by the animal’s beauty, he gave her a hug.

Msituni now up and running with other giraffes

After 10 days in the custom brace, the problem was corrected.

All told, she was in braces for 39 days from the day she was born and stayed in the animal hospital the entire time.

After that, she was slowly introduced to her mum and others in the herd. Her mum never took her back, but another female giraffe has adopted her, so to speak, and she now runs along like the other giraffes.

Mr Mirzaian hopes to hang up a picture of the baby giraffe in her patterned brace so the kids he treats will be inspired to wear theirs.

“It was the coolest thing to see an animal like that walk in a brace,” he said.


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