Bionic Donkey Legs and Rams on Wheels: The World of Animal Prosthetics

Image courtesy of Bichos Raros

This article originally appeared on VICE Spain

When your pet is left disabled due to a birth defect or some kind of debilitating injury, you try to adapt and make sure their life is as comfortable as it can be in the circumstances. If there’s a lot of pain or discomfort involved, you might decide to have it put down. If you have no heart, you could go for a third scenario – tying the animal to a tree and abandoning it. But for disabled animals that don’t live in the wild but aren’t anyone’s pet either – animals who work or serve humankind in some capacity – there’s usually only one way out: being slaughtered.

Although that might sound cruel, it’s hardly any crueller than nature itself. But where have civilisation and centuries of technological advances led us, if not to a point where we don’t have to settle for the certainty of death for disabled animals? Today, there are many individuals as well as organisations working to give disabled animals a paw. In animal shelters like Bichos Raros in Madrid, countless dogs in wheelchairs are happily running around the facilities. Thanks to their wheels, the disabled puppies are hardly held back – they can play and frolic as much as they want. Moreover, the older dogs are getting a second chance at a normal life.

Bichos Raros is basically disabled dog heaven – there’s a room for physical therapy, fully equipped with all kinds of gadgets to make the animals more comfortable, and there’s also a pool where the animals can do their hydrotherapy exercises.

Catia Faria, philosopher and PhD-researcher at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona, has made a study of assisting animals in need and helping nature a little. Her thesis, titled Animal Ethics Gone Wild: The Problem of Wild Animal Suffering and Human Intervention focuses on explaining why we have the moral obligation to assist animals that live in a natural environment – even the disabled ones. Her main point is wild life and technology aren’t mutually exclusive.

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One example of this is Freddy – a turtle whose shell was severely burnt in a wildfire in the Amazon rainforest in Brazil. He was the first turtle ever to get a new shell, through the use of 3D printing technology.

A group consisting of vets, designers and a local artist came together to create a prosthetic shell for Freddy. The shell was built out of four corn-based plastic pieces that fit together, and was painted on by illustrator Yuri Caldera in a way that allowed Freddy to blend into his environment and stay safe from predators.

Image courtesy of El Valle Encantado

But there’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to prosthetics for disabled animals. Esperanza Álvarez is a vet and the founder of El Valle Encantado in Madrid – one of 10 sanctuaries for formerly working animals in Spain. She explains that for Dani, a rescued donkey who needs a new prosthesis, 3D printing is not an option. “First of all, 3D printers aren’t big enough to create what he needs. Then there’s the material, which isn’t not strong enough to support his weight. And in the end, it will just rub uncomfortably against his skin.”

For instance, a donkey and a dog have completely different needs when it comes to prosthetics. “A donkey sweats – like people do. Dogs don’t sweat. Their skin is also very different – they get wounded easily and the chance for infections is greater.” The caretakers at Valle Encantado have tried several options to help Dani, but none of them worked. They’ve now set their hopes on a social media campaign to support Dani, #EstoyConDani.

Image courtesy of El Valle Encantado

There aren’t many companies that produce orthopaedic material specifically for animals, but the demand is increasing. The animal sanctuary El Hogar ProVegan works with an American company called Animal Orthocare, which makes prosthetics for all species and is developing universal gadgets for dogs (think of elbow pads and knee pads) that work for any dog leg – no moulds necessary.

Animal Orthocare’s founder Derrick Campana tells us that they principally use thermoplastics for their prosthetics, due to the fact that it’s easily moulded when it’s heated. Personalised animal prosthetics usually go at about $1250 (£940) “unless you’re a non-profit organisation”.

Image courtesy of El Hogar ProVegan

Campana is especially proud of the unique design of the new prosthesis made for Felix, a ram rescued by El Hogar ProVegan. Founder Elena Tova explains that Felix is lifted up onto a special gadget every morning, designed to “massage his knees and activate them after his night’s sleep. When he’s on there, we can see if he’s chafed anywhere and easily put on the artificial legs that allow him to walk around and join his family.” Felix, as you can tell, is luckier than most disabled rams.

The field of orthopaedics for animals is quickly evolving thanks to “technology taken from other fields such as aeronautics, the automotive industry or the medical field,” explains Campana. He does add that 3D printing still has a really long way to go, and that osseointegration will be a vital part of helping disabled animals in the next few years. It will take a while, but step by step more options are open to disabled animals, thanks to a combination of orthopaedics, bionics and ethics.

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