San Diego Zoo Penguin Gets Fitted with Custom Orthopedic Footwear

Jesus Figueroa
(Info from press release)

Specially Designed Neoprene/Rubber “Boots” Help Lucas Walk and Ease Symptoms of Non-curable Degenerative Foot Condition

Lucas, a prominent member of the San Diego Zoo’s African penguin colony who was diagnosed with a degenerative foot condition, has a new opportunity to thrive, thanks to intervention by the Zoo’s wildlife heath and wildlife care specialist teams. Team members—with the help of Thera-Paw, a national organization that designs and manufactures rehabilitative and assistive products for animals with special needs—created and fitted Lucas with custom orthopedic shoes made of neoprene and rubber, to prevent pressure sores from developing on his feet and ankle when he stands and walks. 

Lucas has a chronic condition known as bumblefoot, an umbrella term for a range of avian degenerative foot conditions ranging from mild redness to deep abscesses. If left untreated, bumblefoot could lead to sepsis and death by secondary infection.Unfortunately, Lucas’s bumblefoot is believed to be a permanent condition, so the wildlife team decided to use the boots to make him as comfortable as possible as he goes about his normal daily routine. The boots should protect the lesions already present on his feet, while minimizing the risk of him developing additional sores.   
“I’ve known Lucas for a long time, so having the ability to provide him with a chance to live a normal life brings a smile to my face,” said Dr. Beth Bicknese, senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo. “The boots are cushioned and Velcroed in place, so they will help Lucas to fully participate in the colony and showcase behaviors that are more typical for a penguin—such as climbing the rocks, swimming, nesting and finding a suitable mate.” 
The 4-year-old penguin’s medical journey began more than 3 years ago, when he developed a spinal infection that left him with weak muscles in his legs and the inability to properly stand upright on his toes.  Lucas was forced to rest on areas of his ankles that would not normally touch the ground. The team provided Lucas with pain medication, physical therapy and acupuncture treatments to try to improve his spine, but were unable to heal his condition. As sores began to form on his foot and legs, the team reached out to representatives at Thera-Paw, and asked them to create the custom padded boots. 
“This was such an amazing opportunity, and we were honored to be asked to assist the team at the San Diego Zoo,” said Ilaria Borghese, founder and president of Thera-Paw. “Over the years, we’ve tackled challenging cases like Lucas’s, and each is special and memorable. One thing that never gets old is seeing an animal’s life dramatically improve after using one of our aids. It inspires and drives us every day.”
Wildlife care specialists at the Zoo observed that after fitting Lucas with his new boots, his gait improved, increasing his ability to navigate his rocky habitat with greater ease—and his posture became more natural, allowing him the faculty to gain better balance while standing. 
We were pleasantly surprised at the immediate change in Lucas after we fitted him with his new boots,” said Debbie Denton, senior wildlife care specialist at the San Diego Zoo. “Seeing him move about now gives us hope that he may be OK going forward, and able to live a full life.”
African penguins are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Once one of southern Africa’s most abundant seabirds, the species suffered a massive population decline from an estimated 1 million breeding pairs to only about 18,000 breeding pairs today. In the past two years alone, the population decreased more than 23percent. Historically, penguin eggs and guano were commercially harvested, which had a devastating effect on the population. Although both practices were abolished toward the end of the 20th century, other threats—including a lack of readily available food due to overfishing, climate change, oil and marine pollution, the emergence of avian influenza A (H5N8) virus and habitat degradation—contribute to a continuing population decline.

San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance participates in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP) program for these endangered aquatic birds and has previously partnered with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), to help facilitate conservation programs in South Africa.
“Penguins are a remarkable family of birds,” said Denton. “There is no other type of animal that is so widely spread across an enormous geographic range, or displays so many unique characteristics among its members. As their numbers fall, every individual bird matter. It’s vital that we continue our work to ensure their continued survival for generations to come.”

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