Think artificial limbs are only for those of us with opposable thumbs and language skills? Think again. Thanks to technology, innovation, and a little bit of luck, animals who have lost paws, flippers, beaks, and tails can use modern prosthetics to make amazing comebacks.
1. Winter the Dolphin: Tail
In December 2005, a fisherman found a three-month-old dolphin tangled up in the ropes of a crab trap off the east coast of Florida. Although local marine mammal veterinarians were able to save her life, they couldn’t save the little dolphin’s tail. The losses obviously affected the dolphin’s ability to swim, so a human prosthetics company joined forces with the marine vets to create a substitute tail made from the same plastic as human prosthetics. Winter the dolphin has done swimmingly with her new tail, adapting to a new swim pattern and adjusting to newer and better versions as the technology improves.
2. Beauty the Eagle: Beak
Take away an eagle’s beak, and you take away its ability to eat, drink, groom - even defend itself. When Beauty the eagle was found at an Alaska landfill in 2005, she was slowly starving to death because a poacher had shot off most of her upper beak. An engineer spent 200 hours developing a nylon-composite beak for Beauty that helps her drink and grip food. Though she’ll never be able to live in the wild again - the beak isn’t strong enough to kill prey - Beauty now spends her days attending lectures as the spokesbird against raptor poaching.
3. Tzvika the Turtle: Legs
You might think that being on the wrong end of a lawn mower would mean certain death for a turtle, but with today’s technology, that’s not necessarily so. After mower blades severely damaged Tzvika’s shell and caused a spinal injury that paralyzed her rear limbs, veterinarians outfitted her with a new set of wheels—literally. A set of tiny tires attach to the turtle’s underside, elevating her to keep her shell from being worn down while still allowing her to walk. Slowly, of course—she’s still a turtle.
4. Indio the Horse: Leg
An animal’s need for a prosthetic isn’t always due to careless humans. Indio the horse kicked through a metal stall wall, more or less severing his hoof in the process. Though an injury like that usually results in euthanization, his owners hoped that there was a different solution. A veterinarian stepped in and was able to remove the rest of the damaged lower leg, replacing it with a prosthetic that allows Indio to function almost completely normally. In fact, Indio was up and moving on his new leg just an hour after the surgery.
5. Mister Stubbs the Alligator: Tail
Chances are, you’ve never been on the losing end of a gator fight. Mister Stubbs has been, and he has a stump where his tail once was to prove it. After he and 31 other alligators were found in an illegal shipment of exotic animals, a team of experts came together to figure out exactly how a prosthetic gator tail would work. After accounting for variables like gravity, weight, and buoyancy, the team developed a three-foot-long rubber tail that attaches to Mister Stubbs with nylon straps. Though a better version is in development—the current tail requires an inflatable water wing attachment for stability in the water—Mister Stubbs is doing well enough that his name is no longer accurate.
6. Stumpy the Kangaroo: Leg
Not that designing any animal prosthetic is easy, but creating a suitably springy leg for a kangaroo is particularly challenging. Because a kangaroo typically hops from point A to point B instead of walking, the prosthetic created for Stumpy, a red kangaroo who lives in an Ohio sanctuary, had to be able to withstand specific movements and forces. A veterinary medicine professor and licensed human prosthesis orthotist joined forces to create an appendage that works similarly to the artificial limb used by amputee runners.
7. Girl the Tiger: Hip
Just like your grandmother, Girl the Malayan tiger suffered from arthritis. Unlike your nana, Girl underwent a three-hour procedure in 2011 that fitted her with a prosthetic hip first developed for dogs. Though the surgery was tricky—the tiger’s heart almost stopped at one point—Girl made it through and was reported to be doing as well as any tiger could be doing after such a serious procedure.
8. Naki’o the Dog: All Four Paws
When Naki’o the dog was just five weeks old, he and the rest of the puppies from his litter were abandoned in a foreclosed home in Nebraska in the dead of winter. Stuck in the house’s freezing cellar, the poor puppy’s paws were submerged in a puddle that later froze around his feet, leaving him with four stumps by the time rescuers stepped in. A veterinarian’s assistant raised the money to buy prosthetics for Naki’o’s rear legs, but once the pet prosthetics company saw how well the dog adapted, they offered to make the front two for free. Today, the “bionic dog” runs, plays, and even swims just like any other pup.
9. Oscar the Cat: Paws
If there’s a bionic dog, you know there’s also a bionic cat. Enter Oscar, a black cat from England who was asleep in a sunny field when a combine harvester managed to sneak up on him, slicing off his back paws. Though his owners feared the worst, Oscar ended up being a good candidate for titanium rod implants. Veterinarians and engineers say the design of the implants was inspired by the way deer antlers grow through the skin.
10. Tungo the Penguin: Beak
After getting a little too up-close-and-personal with a boat propeller, a five-month-old Magellanic penguin named Tungo was left with a shattered beak. Tungo would have starved without the help of a veterinarian who was able to salvage pieces of the beak, fashioning them into a prosthetic that allows him to catch his own fish again.
11. Hope the Giraffe: Legs
Although she was born with a hoof deformity, Hope the giraffe has no problem getting around. The deformity occurred because of tendons in her foot that restricted her legs and leg growth, stopping them from developing properly. A medical team began treating the condition within hours of her birth, eventually fitting Hope with shoes that had an external tendon system to keep her hooves aligned properly. As she grew and her legs strengthened, less and less prosthetic was needed. Today, Hope is prosthetic-free, and it’s hard to tell that she ever needed any corrective action at all.
Want to meet more incredible bionic animals who have used technology to survive? Tune in to Nature on PBS’s Think Wednesday lineup at 8 pm Eastern/7 pm Central on Wednesday April 9.