Human medicine saves a giraffe in San Diego



Over the past three decades, Ara Mirzaian has put braces on everyone from Paralympians 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 its front limb flexed backwards. Park staff feared that he could die if the problem was not corrected immediately, as it could prevent him from feeding and walking in the habitat.

But they had no experience applying a brace to a baby giraffe.

The situation was especially difficult, as she was a 178-centimeter-tall (5-foot-10-inch) newborn who was growing every day.

So they turned to the orthotics experts at the Hanger Clinic, where Mirzaian saw his first animal patient.

“It was very surreal when I found out,” Mirzaian told The Associated Press this week during a visit to meet Msituni, who was pacing with the other giraffes without a hitch. “Of course, all I did was go online and study giraffes 24 hours a day until I got here.”

Increasingly, zoos are turning to medical professionals who treat people to find solutions for animals that are sick.

​​Collaboration is especially useful in the field of prosthetics and orthotics. Earlier this year, Florida-based ZooTampa teamed up with experts in the field to replace the beak of a cancer-stricken hornbill with a 3D-printed prosthetic.

​​And in 2006, a team at Hanger in Florida created a prosthetic for a dolphin that had lost its tail after becoming entangled in the ropes of a crab trap. His story inspired the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale.”

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

“Commonly we put on casts and bandages and stuff. But something as extensive, as this orthosis that was provided to him, is something that we really had to turn to our human (medical) colleagues for,” Kinney said.

Msituni suffered from hyperextension of the carpals, the bones of the wrist joint in the forelimbs of giraffes, more akin to arms.

Compensating for the excess, the second forelimb began to hyperextend as well.

His rear joints were also weak, but these were corrected with special hoof extenders. And since she weighed more than 120 pounds at birth, the abnormality was already taking its toll on her joints and bones.

While the custom braces were being built, Kinney first bought some post-op knee braces at Target that she cut and resewed, but they kept slipping off. Afterward, Msituni donned medical-grade knee pads for humans, modified for her long legs. But she broke one.

For custom-made braces to work, they had to have some range of motion but be durable, so Hanger worked with a company that makes horse braces.

Using molds of the giraffe’s legs, it took eight days to make the graphite orthoses adorned with the animal’s distinctive spotted pattern to match its fur.

“We put in the giraffe picture 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 the gadgets. So why not do it with a giraffe?

In the end, Msituni only needed an orthosis. Her other leg corrected itself with the medical-grade orthosis.

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

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