Escondido, Calif. (Associated Press) – For the past three decades, Ara Mirzaian has put braces on everyone from Paralympians to children with scoliosis. But Msetoni was sick like no other: a newborn giraffe.
The calf was born on February 1 at the San Diego Safari Park Zoo in Escondido, north of San Diego, with its front end bent back. Park staff feared he might die if the problem wasn’t corrected immediately, as it could prevent him from feeding and walking home.
But they had no experience putting a stent on a baby giraffe.
The situation was especially difficult, as a 178 cm (5 ft 10 in) baby girl was growing every day.
So they turned to orthopedists at the Hanger Clinic, where Mirzayan 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 Msitoni, who was walking with other giraffes without any hitches. “Of course, all I did was go online and study the giraffes 24 hours a day until I got here.”
Zoos are increasingly turning to medical professionals who treat people to find solutions for sick animals.
Cooperation is particularly 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 hornet with 3D prints.
And in 2006, a team in Hunger, Florida, created a prosthetic limb for a dolphin that had lost its tail after becoming entangled in the ropes of a lobster trap. His story inspired the 2011 movie “Dolphin Tale.”
But that was an obvious learning curve for everyone, including Matt Kenny, the senior vet for the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance responsible for the Msituni case.
“We usually wear splints and bandages and so on. But something so extensive, like this orthosis that was provided to him, is something we really had to turn to from our human (medical) colleagues for,” Kenny said.
Msetoni suffered from hyperextension of the wrists, the bones of the wrist joint in the front of giraffes, closer to the arms.
To compensate for the increase, the second anterior limb began to over-extend as well.
His hind joints were also weak, but she was able to correct them with special hoof expanders. Because he weighed more than 120 pounds at birth, this abnormality was already affecting his joints and bones.
While building custom braces, Kinney first bought post-operative knee braces at Target that had them cut out and reshaped, but kept slipping. Next, Mrs. Missoni donned medical grade humanoid knee pads, adjusted to fit her long legs. But he broke one.
For custom-engineered braces to work, they need to have some range of motion but are durable, so Hanger worked with a company that made horse orthotics.
Using molds of giraffe legs, it took eight days to make graphite orthotics emblazoned with the animal’s distinctive spotted pattern to match its fur.
“We put the giraffe in just to make it fun,” said Mirzayan. “We do this with kids all the time. They can pick a superhero or their favorite team and print it on the gadgets. So why not do it with a giraffe?”
In the end, Macitoni only needed an orthosis. The other leg corrects itself with orthotics.
After 10 days in the custom brace, the problem was corrected.