California penguin gets second chance at life with prosthetic boots

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. Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo
1 of 2 | 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. Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo

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Aug. 30 (UPI) -- A penguin in California is getting a new lease on life thanks to a pair of prosthetic boots.

Lucas, an African penguin at the San Diego Zoo, was diagnosed with a degenerative foot condition called bumblefoot. This causes painful lesions on the feet and can lead to sepsis, infection and death if left untreated.


Zoo officials said Monday, though, that Lucas had recently been fitted with a pair of prosthetic "shoes" made of neoprene and rubber, which will allow him to walk better and minimize the pressure on his feet when he moves.

The boots were created by the zoo in partnership with animal prosthesis organization Thera-Paw, which makes artificial limbs for a variety of animals.

For Lucas, these boots have been a long time coming.

The four-year-old penguin initially developed a spinal infection as a young chick that left him without the inability to stand properly, according to zoo officials.


The medical team at the San Diego Zoo attempted therapy and acupuncture to try and relieve Lucas' 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.

"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 San Diego Zoo senior veterinarian Dr. Beth Bickense. "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."

Zoo officials told KFMB-TV the boots were created by having Lucas walk across sand, and then manufacturing a mold that would allow him to stand upright on his ankles.

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.

"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."


San Diego Zoo wildlife care specialist Debbie Denton said, "We were pleasantly surprised at the immediate change in Lucas after we fitted him with his new boots. Seeing him move about now gives us hope that he may be okay going forward, and able to live a full life."

"It warms my heart to know that we've been able to do something to make him more comfortable and to make him fit in with the colony a bit better," Denton added.

Lucas' new outlook means that he will have the chance to thrive into adulthood, a welcomed sign for a species that is hurting in the wild.

African penguins are listed as endangered on the IUCN's list of threatened species.

The San Diego Zoo noted that, while there were once an estimated one million breeding pairs of African penguins, that number has declined today to just 18,000.

The total population of the species has reportedly decreased by 23 percent in the last two years alone, mainly due to habitat loss, marine pollution, climate change and a lack of food.

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