Lucas, a penguin at the San Diego Zoo, was given a second chance at life after he was fitted with a pair of prosthetic boots.

California penguin receives life-saving prosthetic shoes

Image credit: San Diego Zoo

Lucas, an African penguin suffering from a spinal condition, has been able to walk once again thanks to a pair of prosthetic shoes.

The prosthetics - made of neoprene and rubber - have allowed the four-year-old penguin to get back on his feet, and ease some of the worst symptoms of his degenerative disease. 

Lucas was diagnosed with a condition known as bumblefoot, which causes painful lesions on the feet and can lead to sepsis, infection and death if left untreated. The condition was a result of a spinal infection he suffered as a young chick, which left him without the ability to stand properly. 

Unfortunately, Lucas's condition is permanent. For this reason, officials at the San Diego Zoo, where he resides, developed the "boots" to help him walk better and minimise the pressure on his feet when he moves. The shoes were created in partnership with the animal prosthesis organisation Thera-Paw, which makes artificial limbs for a variety of animals.

“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, a 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 behaviours that are more typical for a penguin, such as climbing the rocks, swimming, nesting and finding a suitable mate."

Two zoo officials look at Lucas, the penguin, with his prosthetic shoes

Two zoo officials look at Lucas, the penguin, with his prosthetic shoes /San Diego Zoo

Image credit: San Diego Zoo

Lucas has had trouble walking for more than three years because of the inflammation in his spine. The infection of the discs, which act as a cushion between each vertebra, causes muscle weakness and pain in the legs. This condition also causes him to have terrible blisters on his left foot and legs from sitting back on his ankles, which wouldn't normally contact the ground. 

The medical team at the San Diego Zoo attempted therapy and acupuncture to try and relieve Lucas's pain, but these efforts were mostly unsuccessful. As his condition began to worsen, the zoo reached out to Thera-Paw as a last-ditch resort to help their waddling friend.

"This was such an amazing opportunity, and we were honoured 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."

Lucas with his orthopedic boots

Lucas with his orthopedic boots / San Diego Zoo

Image credit: San Diego Zoo

In order to develop a solution that responded to Lucas' needs, zoo officials had the African penguin walk across the sand and then manufactured a mould that would allow him to stand upright on his ankles. The boots were cushioned and Velcroed in place, to allow Lucas to have full mobility. 

Zoo officials observed that, following Lucas being fitted with the boots, his posture and gait improved, allowing him to maintain his balance better and move around his habitat more easily.

“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 an endangered species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. In the past two years alone, the population decreased by more than 23 per cent, due to habitat loss, marine pollution, climate change and a lack of food. Today, there are only around 18,000 breeding pairs worldwide. 

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