Baby giraffe bounces back after being fitted with an orthopedic brace

A newborn giraffe has been fitted with an orthopedic front leg brace at a US zoo.

The calf, named Msituni, was born on February 1 at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park in Escondido, north of San Diego, with a deviated forelimb.

The safari park staff feared she could die if they did not immediately correct the condition, which could prevent her from breastfeeding and walking around the house.


Msituni was fitted with custom carbon graphite orthopedic braces (San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance via AP).

But they had no experience fitting a corset on a baby giraffe. This proved to be especially difficult, given that she was a 5’10” newborn and was growing every day.

So they turned to the orthopedic specialists at the Hanger Clinic, where Ara Mirzayan, who for three decades fitted braces for everyone from Paralympic athletes to children with scoliosis, landed his very first animal patient.

“It was pretty surreal when I first heard about it,” Mr. Mirzayan told The Associated Press this week while on tour to meet Msituni, who had no problem walking along with other giraffes.

“Of course, all I did was go online and study giraffes 24 hours a day, 7 days a week until we got here.”

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


Zoo veterinarians and orthopedic specialists at the Hanger Clinic attach braces to a calf (San Diego Zoos Wildlife Alliance via AP)

The collaboration has been particularly beneficial in the field of prosthetics and orthopedics.

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 prosthesis.

The Hanger team in California selected orthopedic insoles for a 2016 Paralympic medal-winning cyclist and kayaker in Brazil and made a brace for a marathon runner with multiple sclerosis who raced on seven continents.

And in 2006, the Hanger team in Florida created a prosthetic for a bottlenose dolphin that lost its tail after getting tangled in ropes from a crab trap. Their story inspired the 2011 film Dolphin Story.


Zoo staff feared the cub could die if they didn’t fix it immediately (San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance via AP).

But it’s been a learning curve for everyone, including Matt Kinney, the San Diego Zoos Wildlife Alliance’s senior veterinarian in charge of the Msituni case.

He said: “We usually put plaster, bandages and stuff. But something as extensive as this bandage that she was given is something we really had to turn to our human (medical) colleagues for.”

Msituni suffered from overstretched wrists, the carpal bones in giraffe forelimbs that look more like hands.

As she overcompensated, the other forelimb also began to overextend. The joints of her hind legs were also weak, but they could be corrected with special hoof extensions.

And given that she weighed over 100 pounds at birth, the anomaly was already affecting her joints and bones.


The calf was soon “adopted” by another giraffe (San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance via AP).

While the custom braces were being made, Mr. Kinney first bought post-op knee braces from Target, which he cut and re-sewed, but they kept slipping off.

Msituni then wore medical-grade human braces that were modified to fit her long legs. But in the end Msituni broke one.

For custom braces to work, they needed to have range of motion yet be strong, so Hanger worked with a company that makes braces for horses.

Using casts of the giraffe’s legs, it took eight days to make the carbon-graphite staples, which had a distinct pattern of the animal’s curved spots to match her fur.

“We made a drawing of a giraffe just to have fun,” Mr. Mirzayan said.

“We do this all the time with kids. They can choose superheroes or their favorite team and we’ll print it on their mount. So why not do the same with the giraffe?”


The carbon-graphite brace has a distinct pattern of crooked animal spots to match its fur (San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance via AP)

As a result, Msituni needed only one take. The other leg was corrected with a medical brace.
When they gave her anesthesia to fit her custom corset, Mr. Mirzayan was so moved by the beauty of the animal that he hugged her.

“It was just amazing to see such a big beautiful creature just lying in front of me,” he said.

After 10 days in a custom brace, the problem was fixed.

In total, she wore braces for 39 days from her birthday. All this time she was in the animal hospital.

After that, she was slowly introduced to her mother and other members of the herd. Her mother never took her back, but she was adopted by another female giraffe and now runs like other giraffes.

Mr Mirzayan hopes to hang a photo of a baby giraffe wearing a patterned suspender so that the children he treats will be inspired to wear their own.

“It was very cool to see such an animal walk in a corset,” he said.

“It’s nice to know that we saved the life of a giraffe.”