Over the past three decades, Ara Mirjian has fitted braces for everyone from Paralympians to children with scoliosis. But Mitsuni 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 the front leg bent the wrong way. Safari park staff feared that she might die if they didn’t correct the situation immediately, which could prevent her from nursing and moving around the housing.
But he had no experience in fitting a baby giraffe into a brace. This proved particularly challenging as she was a newborn 178 cm tall and was getting taller every day. So, they reached out to specialists in orthotics at the Hangar Clinic, where Mirzian landed her first animal patient.
“When I first heard about it it was very surreal,” Mirjian told The Associated Press this week during a tour to meet Mitsuni, who was fumbling with other giraffes without much trouble. “Of course, all I did was online and studying giraffes like 24/7 until we moved out of here.”
Zoos are increasingly turning to medical professionals who treat people to find solutions for sick animals. This collaboration has been particularly helpful in the area 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 prosthesis.
The Hangar team in California fitted orthotics for a cyclist and Kecker, who both went on to medal at the 2016 Paralympics in Brazil, and adapted the brace for a marathoner with multiple sclerosis who ran on seven continents.
And in 2006, a Hangar team in Florida created a prosthetic for a bottlenose dolphin that had lost its tail after becoming entangled in ropes from a crab net. His story inspired the 2011 film Dolphin Tale,
But it was a definite learning curve for everyone, including Matt Kinney, the senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Coalition in charge of Mitsuni’s case.
“We usually put on casts and bandages and stuff. But something that’s pervasive, like this brace that was provided to her, is something we really need to turn to our human (medicine) colleagues for.” Had it,” Kinney said.
Mitsuni encountered hyperextended carpi—the joint bones of the wrists—in the giraffe’s front limbs, which are more like arms. As he compensated more, the other front limb also began to hyperextend. His hind leg joints were also weak but were able to heal with special hoof expanders.
And given that she weighed over 55 kilograms at birth, the abnormality was already taking a toll on her joints and bones.
While custom braces were being made, Kinney first bought post-surgery knee braces at Target, which he cut out and re-sewn, but they kept slipping. Mitsuni then wore medical grade braces for humans that were modified for her long legs. But Mitsuni eventually broke one.
For custom braces to work, they would need a range of motion but be durable, so Hanger worked with a company that makes horse braces.
Using moldings from a giraffe’s feet, it took eight days to make the carbon graphite braces, which showed the animal’s different patterns of crooked spots to match its skin.
“We put in the giraffe pattern to make it fun,” Mirjian said. “We do it all the time with kids. They get to choose the superhero, or their favorite team, and we print it on their strength. So why not do it with the giraffes?”
In the end, Mitsuni only needed a brace. The other leg corrected itself with a medical grade brace.
When he put her down to fit a custom brace, Mirzian was so impressed by the beauty of the beast, he embraced it.
“It was amazing to see such a big, beautiful creature lying in front of me,” he said.
After 10 days in the custom brace, the problem was fixed.
All told, she was in braces for 39 days from the day she was born. She stayed at the animal hospital the entire time. After that, he was gradually introduced to his mother and others in the herd. Her mother never took her back, but another female giraffe has adopted her, so to speak, and she now walks like other giraffes.
Mirjian hopes to hang a picture of a giraffe’s baby in his patterned brace so that the kids he deals with will be inspired to wear them.
“It was the best thing to see such an animal walking in a brace,” he said. “Great to know that we saved a giraffe’s life.”