Meet Msituni (pronounced see tune nee), an adorable three-month-old giraffe in the San Diego Zoo Safari Park who was born with hyperextension of the carpi, a disorder that caused the front legs to bend improperly and made it difficult for her to stand or walk. In the wild, this condition would be lethal as it would prevent her from nursing and walking. The conservation organization’s wildlife health and wildlife care teams collaborated with orthotists from Hanger Clinic and had her fitted with a pair of specialized orthotic braces – and they even painted them a cute giraffe pattern for a more natural look.
For the specialists at Hanger Clinic, this was not an everyday case, as their clients are normally human and a lot smaller than the 1.78-meter (5 foot 10 inches) height (and growing) newborn giraffes typically are. But they rose to the challenge and consulted with the wildlife care staff to develop a customized plan that was specific to this young giraffe. The team took cast moldings of Msituni’s front legs and fabricated the custom-molded carbon graphite orthotic braces. Luckily Msituni needed only one brace, as the other had corrected itself with a medical-grade brace.
“I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment,” said Ara Mirzaian, certified orthotist at Hanger Clinic. “I’ve never worked with wildlife before—it’s one of those things that is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and you just have to savor the moment.”
More and more, zoos are turning to human medical professionals and solutions and applying them to animals, so this feel-good story is becoming more common and successful. Earlier this year a 3D-printed prosthetic was used to save a Great Hornbill’s life after a cancer diagnosis. And in 2021 a baby elephant was given a prosthetic foot after it was lost to a snare. However, this human-to-animal procedure was still a learning curve for the team.
“We commonly put on casts and bandages and stuff. But something that extensive, like this brace that she was provided, that’s something we really had to turn to our human [medicine] colleagues for,” said Matt Kinney, DVM, senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park.
It has not been easy for young Msituni, along with her front leg irregularities, she has also had numerous ailments following her birth. She has had abnormalities in her blood, which the staff had to treat with antibiotics and she had irregularly positioned back legs which required specialized hoof extenders. Despite all of these setbacks, all of the interventions have been effective, her braces are now off as her legs are now correctly positioned and she is no longer on any medication.
She has also been introduced to the rest of the giraffe herd in the 60-acre East Africa savanna habitat in the Safari Park. Msituni will also have a friend in another young giraffe calf called Nuru (pronounced nu roo), who is four days younger than Msituni. Unfortunately, her mom never took her back, but another female adopted her.
“This was an important step in Msituni’s natural development,” said Kristi Burtis, director of wildlife care at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “As her bond grows with the herd, she will be able to learn behaviors and skills important to the development of a young giraffe.”
All giraffe births are important, as in the last 20 years there has been a decrease of 40 percent in the population and it is estimated that there are less than 100,000 left in their native habitat. This decrease is attributed to poaching, habitat loss, and habitat fragmentation in certain regions. The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance is currently partnered with many different organizations on different large-scale conservation projects to slow and eventually stop the continued decline of giraffe populations.
“The birth of every animal is a cherished event, and Msituni’s survival in the face of so much adversity makes it all the more remarkable,” said Kinney.
So for now, Msituni, go little rockstar!