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Artificial Legs Help Maimed Bird Walk Again

By: Susan Rubinowitz

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A top avian veterinarian has fitted a badly-maimed cockatoo with prosthetic legs, saving the bird's life and allowing her to walk again.

In an unusual procedure of his own invention, Dr. Don Harris fashioned new legs for Candy, a leadbeater cockatoo that had been viciously attacked by her mate, another cockatoo that shared her cage in her human family's home in Fort Myers, Fla. Harris, a PetPlace consulting veterinarian, developed the tiny devices after Candy was brought to the Avian & Exotic Animal Medical Center in Miami, severely injured and facing likely euthanasia.

"It kind of looked like she had sat in a blender," Harris said. "At that point, most people would have said because she's lost both her feet she should be euthanized."

But the owners asked, "Is there anything you can do?"

Mauled by Cagemate

The heartrending trauma began on Christmas Eve when Candy's male cagemate mauled at her mercilessly, a show of violence he'd never before demonstrated. Candy tried to defend herself with her feet, but they were raked to pieces, said Harris, director of the medical center.

"Pieces of bone and tendons" were all that was left by the time Candy's owners drove her to his door. A veterinarian in Ft. Myers had worked to stop the bleeding and stabilize the bird.

"I amputated one foot when she came in, and I amputated the other foot a few days later. Over the next two days I had to amputate the lower half of one leg, between the knee and ankle," Harris recalled. "She looked like she'd sat in a blender."

Building Artificial Legs

But Harris thought he might as well try to do more. Why not build artificial legs for Candy? One problem: No one had ever before tried that on a bird.

Harris said he pondered the problem for several days, as Candy lay recuperating. He settled on the idea of using bone pins, employed to splice human bones together, and dental acrylic – a substance commonly used to build a dental bridge in humans. "Birds are non-traditional, and you have to be innovative," said Harris. "You basically have to invent one thing after another."

He fastened the acrylic legs to the bird with pins and attached disc-like stands to serve as feet. Candy was asleep and Harris worried about how she'd adjust when she woke. But that fear proved unjustified. "She woke up from surgery and walked off the recovery towel," he said. "Her parents are amazed and they're thrilled."

First Successful Limb Replacement

Harris knows of no other successful artificial limb replacements in birds, and he's still finding his Christmas miracle a bit hard to believe. "I have not seen anything like this in any animal. I was just skeptical of my own idea," he said.

Candy and her erstwhile lover won't be reunited – he's been banished to another cage, where he'll stay until his aggression is vanquished. Candy herself still faces challenges. Harris said he wants to adjust her feet a little better and see that she's followed carefully to avoid infection.

Candy may be sweet, but she's no grateful bird. Harris says she seems to blame him for the painful experience. "She tolerates me, but the fact is I've done so many things to her."

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