'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.'
An adored San Diego Zoo penguin received a huge confidence boost and a second lease on life thanks to the intervention of the zoo's wildlife health and wildlife care specialist teams. Lucas—a prominent member of the zoo's African penguin colony—had become a bit of a loner since developing a degenerative foot condition known as bumblefoot. According to CBS8, if left untreated, the chronic condition could potentially lead to sepsis and death by secondary infection. "He was a loner and after his injury, it just prolonged that condition for him," a member of the staff told TODAY.
A life-saving invention has Lucas the penguin walking tall. @PattersonNBC shares the story.https://t.co/2NVgA3rrJb— TODAY (@TODAYshow) August 27, 2022
Lucas' medical troubles began more than three years ago when he developed a spinal infection that left him with weak muscles in his legs. This forced the four-year-old penguin to rest on areas of his ankles that would not normally touch the ground and made it difficult for him to properly stand upright on his toes. "You would see him listing to the right a bit and you would see him limping on his left foot," said Lucas' longtime Wildlife Care Specialist Debbie Denton. Although the zoo staff attempted to treat his spine with pain medication, physical therapy and acupuncture treatments, they were unable to heal his bumblefoot condition.
Lucas now has a new opportunity to thrive, thanks to intervention by the zoo’s wildlife teams and a new pair of boots. https://t.co/PQ7d8pChuN— CBS 8 San Diego (@CBS8) August 30, 2022
Eventually, Lucas developed sores on his foot and legs. This was when the zoo team reached out to Thera-Paw, an animal orthotics company that works "closely with veterinary professionals to develop innovative solutions for bracing limbs & improving mobility." The company was enlisted with the challenge of creating custom padded boots that would protect the sores already on the penguin's feet and lower the risk of him developing new ones. To create the boot, the zoo first got Lucas to walk across sand to create an impression of his foot and used the impression to create a mold to send to Thera-Paw.
Martha Symon, the Senior Fabrication Designer at Thera-Paw, explained that designers crafted a custom pair of orthopedic boots for Lucas out of rubber and neoprene. "Since he's walking on his ankle it's going to tip him forward a little bit which is more normal for the penguin to walk," said Symon. Denton revealed that Lucas already loves his new footwear. "Since we've been able to put his shoes on him, he's shown a much more normal gait walking on flat surfaces. There's no limping. There's no favoring his left side," she said. African penguins, which were once one of southern Africa's most abundant seabirds, are now listed as endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
Since he started wearing the boots, Lucas' social status has also improved substantially. He has reportedly even has a penguin girlfriend now. "I've known him since he was an egg. We're very attached to each other. So 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 said. "Penguins are a remarkable family of birds. There is no other type of animal that is so widely spread across an enormous geographic range, or displays so many unique characteristics among its members. As their numbers fall, every individual bird matters. It's vital that we continue our work to ensure their continued survival for generations to come."