Hope abounds, and runs, too

Published on October 18, 2010
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The baby giraffe born July 11 at the Topeka Zoo was off to a bad start. She was born with severe hyperextension of her rear fetlock joints—the same congenital abnormality that resulted in the euthanasia of her disabled sibling a few years earlier. This birth defect reportedly is not unusual among captive giraffe births. It soon became clear the animal was in trouble: both of the giraffe's fetlocks were bent at 90 degree angles and dislocated. 

 (Photos courtesy of Topeka Zoo)

Dr. Joseph P. Kamer, a local small animal practitioner who's been providing veterinary care at the zoo for the past year, was on hand for the delivery, and he sprang into action. He straightened the baby giraffe's joints and had her rear hooves and legs in hard casts (bottom inset) within two hours of her birth.

Initially, Dr. Kamer put her odds of survival around 25 percent. Admiring the baby giraffe's pluck, the Topeka community rallied around her, and the animal was named Hope.

After consulting with large animal and zoo veterinarians, Dr. Kamer, who had never performed podiatric work on a giraffe, decided to go the nonsurgical route and instead try a corrective shoe entirely of his own design for the cloven-hoofed animal.

After two weeks of working on a pair of wooden, extended-heel shoes, Dr. Kamer glued them to Hope's hooves using methylmethacrylate cement and polyethylene mesh reinforcement. For added support, he crafted artificial tendons out of nylon rope to mimic the flexor tendons, attached them to the shoe, and ran them along the leg in plastic tubing.

The casts and shoes were changed as the baby giraffe grew. By late September, Hope was out of the casts, and her left rear leg no longer needed support.

How has Hope responded? "This animal can run—full bore—with these shoes on," Dr. Kamer said. Dr. Kamer is now guardedly optimistic about Hope's chances of survival. "As long as I can keep shoes on this animal for the next several months, then I think that's key," he said, adding that his hope is these techniques will help other giraffes suffering from similar congenital deformities.