PHOTOS: Leg braces save baby giraffe’s life

Msituni the giraffe with her specially-made leg braces.
Msituni the giraffe with her specially-made leg braces. Photo credit San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance.

Msituni the giraffe’s chances of survival were slim, according to Wildlife care staff at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. That is, until she was gifted with a pair of leg braces.

About three months ago, Msituni was born with hyperextension of bones in her front legs. In humans, these capri bones would be equivalent to the wrist, the zoo explained in a press release. Due to her condition, Msituni’s legs could not bend properly, making both standing and walking difficult.

Orthotists from Hanger Clinic – an Austin, Texas-based provider of products for people with disabilities – and the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance team developed special orthotic braces specifically for the giraffe calf. A San Diego-based Hanger team developed custom-molded carbon graphite orthotic braces based on human leg braces by using cast moldings of Msituni’s legs.

“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.”

Msituni’s leg braces even had a giraffe pattern “to provide a natural look,” said the zoo. The giraffe, whose name means “in the forest” in Swahili, has improved greatly since putting the braces on.

Msituni the giraffe with a giraffe-pattern leg brace.
Msituni the giraffe with a giraffe-pattern leg brace. Photo credit San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance

“The braces have been removed, and her legs are now correctly positioned,” as of Thursday, said the zoo.

In addition to the hyperextension issue related to her front legs, Msituni “suffered a variety of serious ailments following her birth,” the zoo explained. Staff treated her using intravenous antibiotics for abnormalities in her blood and with specialized hoof extenders to fix the irregular position of her back legs.

So far, all treatments have been successful. Msituni is no longer on antibiotics and she is achieving a healthy height and weight.

“We are so glad to have the resources and expertise to step in and provide this young calf the opportunity for a full life,” said Matt Kinney, senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park. “Without these lifesaving braces to provide support, the position of her legs would have become increasingly more painful and progressed to a point she would not have been able to overcome.”

Since her health has improved, Msituni has been able to spend time with other giraffes in the herd in the Safari Park’s 60-acre East Africa savanna habitat.

“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.”

Msituni, a giraffe at the San Diego Zoo.
Msituni, a giraffe at the San Diego Zoo. Photo credit San Diego Wildlife Alliance

Outside of the zoo, wild giraffe populations are dwindling. According to the San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance, science teams have estimated that fewer than 100,000 giraffes are left in their native habitats. Over the past two decades, giraffe populations have decreased by more than 40%.

The San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance works with conservation groups to help stop the decline in 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.