People have been using prostheses since the earliest civilizations, and now humans are helping animals use artificial aids to supplement their own missing or impaired limbs. With the advent of new types of prostheses and techniques to create and attach them, animals who may have otherwise died or been incapacitated are getting a second lease on life.
"Imping," a practice once primarily used by falconers to maintain their birds in pristine condition, is now performed by raptor rehabilitators as well. Simply stated, a section of a damaged or broken feather is replaced with the same section of another harvested feather— from a deceased bird of the same species — and attached with an adhesive.
In addition to harvested feathers, the simple tools needed for imping often include dried bamboo to make the "bridge" connecting the two feather shafts, dog nail clippers, a utility knife, epoxy glue, paper, and a sharpie pen. These basic utensils allow a skilled raptor rehabilitator to perform the procedure and release the bird back into the wild with a natural prosthesis. When accurately executed, imping results in a feather, or even multiple feathers, as stalwart and functional as the raptor's previously uninjured flight feathers and they will stay intact until molted out.
Unfortunately, not all animal prostheses can be so simple and provide wild animals the opportunity to be released. However, a synthetic prosthesis can still improve the quality of life for many injured animals.
Albie the goat, for example, is not your typical amputee. Rescued from the streets by Brooklyn Animal Care and Control officers and brought to Farm Sanctuary in New York, Albie was given a second chance to walk on four legs. He lost the lower half of his left leg due to an injury sustained in what is presumed to be a slaughterhouse accident.
Albie’s prosthetist stated to The New York Times, "I'm not an expert on fitting animals, but I've fitted some complicated humans, so I thought it wouldn't be much more difficult to fit Albie." Albie exceeded expectations with the ease in which he adjusted to his new leg.
Winter the dolphin was just three months old when tragedy struck. Ensnared in a crab trap line wrapped tightly around her tail, she lost circulation to the area before being rescued and taken to the Clearwater Marine Aquarium (CMA), which specializes in the rescue, rehabilitation, and release of sick and injured marine mammals. Underweight, dehydrated, and suffering from serious injuries, the dolphin's prognosis was grave. Shortly after her arrival to the hospital, Winter's fluke began to disintegrate and fall off in pieces; within weeks, she lost her entire fluke and two essential vertebrae that power the fluke's up-and-down movement. Thanks to 100 volunteers, staff, and veterinarians spending four months caring for the dolphin around the clock, Winter's health eventually improved.
After learning how to propel herself forward with her pectoral fins and developing a side-to-side swimming motion much like that of a shark or fish, Winter was introduced to an adult companion dolphin, Panama. Even though Winter had surpassed expectations with her capacity for survival, her unique swimming style raised concern for injuries to her spine. Then came the idea for a prosthetic fin. Trainers spent a year and a half teaching Winter to swim using the typical up-and-down motion of a dolphin. The prosthetic is used as a cue for her to swim in this normal pattern, with the objective of maintaining her ability to swim comfortably when the fake fin comes off.
Several companies make commercially available prosthetic devices for companion animals. Your veterinarian can walk you through the process should the need ever arise.
Parts of this article originally appeared in the AWI Quarterly. Reprinted with permission of the Animal Welfare Institute.
Dr. Jennifer Coates