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For the past three decades, Ara Mirzaian has fitted braces for everyone from Paralympic athletes to children with scoliosis. But Msituni was a patient like no other: a newborn giraffe.
The calf was born Feb. 1 at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, north of San Diego, with its front limb bent in the wrong direction. Safari park staff feared she could die if the condition was not corrected immediately, which could prevent her from nursing and walking around the habitat.
But they had no experience putting a brace on a baby giraffe. That was especially challenging given that she was a newborn at 5 feet 10 inches (178 centimeters) tall and growing taller every day. So, they contacted orthotics experts at the Hanger Clinic, where Mirzaian got her first animal patient.
“It was pretty surreal when I first found out about it,” Mirzaian told App this week during a tour to meet Msituni, who strutted along with the other giraffes without a hitch. “Of course, all I did was go online and study giraffes 24/7 until we got here.”
Zoos are increasingly turning to medical professionals who treat people to find solutions for sick 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 with a 3D-printed prosthetic.
Hanger’s team in California fitted braces for a cyclist and kayaker who won medals at the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil and customized a brace for a marathoner with multiple sclerosis who ran on seven continents.
And in 2006, a team at Hanger in Florida created a prosthetic for a bottlenose dolphin that had lost its tail after becoming entangled in the ropes of a crab trap. His story inspired the 2011 film 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, bandages and stuff. But something as extensive, like this brace that he was provided, is something that we really had to turn to our human (medical) colleagues for,” Kinney said.
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Msituni suffered from hyperextended carpus, wrist-joint bones in giraffes’ forelimbs, which more closely resemble arms. As she overcompensated, her second forelimb began to hyperextend as well. Her hind leg joints were also weak, but were corrected with specialized hoof extenders.
And given that he weighed more than 100 pounds (55 kilos) at birth, the abnormality was already taking its toll on his joints and bones.
While the custom braces were being built, Kinney first bought post-surgery knee braces at Target that she cut and resewed, but they kept slipping. Msituni then wore human-grade medical-grade leg braces that were modified for her long legs. But eventually Msituni broke one.
For custom braces to work, they would need to have range of motion but be durable, so Hanger worked with a company that makes horse braces.
Using cast moldings of giraffe legs, it took eight days to make the carbon graphite braces that featured the animal’s distinctive pattern of twisted spots to match its fur.
“We put the giraffe pattern 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 their boosters. So why not do it with a giraffe?
In the end, Msituni only needed a brace. Her other leg corrected itself with the medical grade brace.
As she was placed underneath to fit her custom corset, Mirzaian was so moved by the beauty of the animal that he hugged her.
“It was amazing to see such a large and beautiful creature just lying in front of me,” he said.
After 10 days with the custom corset, the problem was corrected.
In total, he was in braces for 39 days from the day he was born. She stayed at the animal hospital the whole time. After that, she slowly introduced him to her mother and other pack members. Her mom never accepted her, but another female giraffe adopted her, so to speak, and now she runs like the other giraffes.
Mirzaian hopes to post a photo of the baby giraffe in his patterned brace so that the children he treats will be inspired to wear theirs.
“It was great to see an animal like that walking around in a brace,” he said. “It feels good to know that we saved the life of a giraffe.”
Editing: Emilio Gomez