False Limbs, True Hopes—How 3D Printing Gives These Animals a Second Life

How 3D Printing Gives These Animals a Second Life

Prostheses aren’t for humans only; they can give animals a second chance, too.

Ever since Japanese doctor Hideo Kodama filed the first 3D printing patent in 1980, the technology has begun to serve in different disciplines. 3D printing works with a wide range of materials, including metals, ceramics, plastics, glass and even food ingredients. It makes us wonder how far we can push this technology.

Recently, 3D printing technology has entered the veterinary field, helping mutilated animals return to their normal lives by printing functional prostheses for them. How do animals actually benefit from the technology? Here are some truly moving stories illustrating how 3D printing is used in the veterinary sciences:

Tieta the toucan

When it comes to toucans, the first thing that pops up in our minds is usually their oversized and brightly-colored beaks. Their beak is important because toucans need it for hunting and self-defense. Without a beak, a toucan can die. Although their bills look robust, they’re composed of keratin (the same protein that makes up our fingernails) and supported by lightweight bones, making them particularly fragile. Unfortunately, Tieta, a female Brazilian toucan, got half of its upper beak damaged (probably due to traffickers’ mistreatment) when she was rescued from a wildlife animal fair in Rio de Janeiro.

To save Tieta, scientists from the wildlife management group Instituto Vida Livre and three Brazilian universities decided to create a prosthetic bill for her using 3D printing. After two months of work, the team has successfully designed a four centimeter long plastic faux beak that weighs only four grams. Tieta “received” her new bill on July 27, 2015, and she quickly adapted to it in three days. With the new beak, Tieta can eat independently and live a normal life again.

Freddy the tortoise

When we were children, our parents often told us that tortoises carry their homes on their backs. However, not all tortoises are lucky enough to live in stable houses. When Freddy was found in a wildfire in Brazil, she was severely burned and lost 85% of her shell. Losing most of her shell was almost equal to death because a shell is part of the tortoise’s spine. A tortoise is vulnerable to infection and predation by other animals if its shell is damaged.

Fortunately, Freddy met Animal Avengers, a team of four veterinarians, a dental surgeon and a 3D designer based in São Paulo, who helped her live a second life using 3D printing. To begin with, the team’s graphic designer used a 3D computer program to reconstruct a 3D computer image based on about 40 photos he took of Freddy. The image was then passed to the dental surgeon, who turned it into a real-life tortoise shell using a 3D printer.

The team finally designed a four-part jigsaw-like prosthetic shell that fits perfectly on Freddy. After about 200 hours of printing with corn-based plastic, the world’s first 3D-printed prosthetic shell was finally ready. To make the shell look more lifelike, Brazilian artist Yuri Caldera replicated the real-life tortoise shell pattern and hand-painted on the prosthetic shell, making Freddy’s new home more natural-looking and indistinguishable from other tortoises.

Buttercup the duck

The fastest duck—a red-breasted merganser—ever recorded can fly at an airspeed of 100 miles per hour (ca. 161 km/h) while being pursued by an airplane, which is about half as fast as the TGV (France’s intercity high-speed train). While the record may still be waiting to be eclipsed, Buttercup the duck cannot compete because he struggles with walking.

Hatched in a high school in Arlington, Texas, and later sent to the Feathered Angels Waterfowl Sanctuary, Buttercup was born with his left foot pointing backward. Having a deformed leg almost equals being one-legged because Buttercup hobbles when walking. 

The founder of the sanctuary, Mike Garey, decided to do something for Buttercup and reached out to NovaCopy, a 3D printing company, to seek help. As the deformed leg appeared useless, Garey decided to amputate it and replace it with a prosthetic leg. NovaCopy scanned Buttercup’s sister Minnie’s left foot and used it as the basis for the 3D modeling of Buttercup’s new leg. The company later printed out the prosthetic leg using silicon.

Buttercup quickly adapted to the new faux leg and can finally waddle like other ducks. However, Garey and his team noticed that the first prosthetic leg didn’t work as well as they expected when Buttercup went swimming. The team then went back to square one and designed a unique 3D printed swimming foot for Buttercup so that he could finally walk and swim freely as he should.

Mosha the elephant

Elephants are the largest terrestrial animals that exist globally. Yet, being gigantic doesn’t mean they are invincible. Mosha, a female elephant from Thailand, lost her right front leg to landmines near the Thai-Myanmar border when she was seven months old. As Mosha grows older, she begins to have difficulty walking as she relies on the remaining three limbs to support her growing body weight. Mosha weighed around 1,300 pounds (ca. 590 kg) when she was injured, but her weight tripled to 4,400 pounds (ca. 1,996 kg) in 2016. Therdchai Jivacate, a Thai orthopedic surgeon, pointed out that Mosha’s spine would bend, and she would eventually die if she continued to live like that.

To help Mosha walk normally again, Jivacate designed and produced the first prosthetic leg using 3D printing technology for Mosha when she was two and a half years old. Over the years, Jivacate observed and followed Mosha’s growth closely and designed over ten prosthetic legs of different lengths and resilience to support her weight. According to Elephant Parade, a social enterprise dedicated to elephant conservation, Mosha, which is now 17 years old, has to get a new prosthetic limb once or twice a year before she stops growing at 20 years old.

While seeing animals benefiting from human technology is absolutely thrilling, we hope there aren’t many of them needing a faux beak or a false limb. Although 3D printing can save many animals, it’s never an excuse for mistreatment.

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Header image courtesy of Unsplash


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