e-NABLE is Going to the Birds: 3D Printed Prosthetic Leg for a Secretary Bird in Germany

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Usually when we write about worldwide volunteer network e-NABLE, we’re sharing an inspiring story about its 3D printed prosthetics and the children who receive them, or one of the many ways you can volunteer. Recently, e-NABLE was called on to 3D print a prosthetic leg for a patient…but it wasn’t a human patient. Instead, the network, which typically provides 3D printed prosthetics to children for free, manufactured a new leg for a three-year-old secretary bird named Söckchen, which means Little Socks.

Söckchen lives at the Weltvogelpark Walsrode sanctuary in Walsrode, a town in northwest Germany. According to Kruger National Park in South Africa, the secretary bird, which looks like a crane, is a bird of prey, but has a tail and long legs, unlike other raptors, and though it has wings, it only flies when it has to. It’s named for the crest of long feathers on top of its head, which resemble quill pens that office workers in the 19th century would stick behind their ears. It stands up to four feet tall, and is most often found throughout Africa.

Janina Buse, who works at the sanctuary, said, “Söckchen used to be part of show group, but one day we found her in her aviary that saw that she had broken her left leg. Because the nerves had been so badly damaged, we were unfortunately forced to amputate the leg.”

Once her leg was amputated, the workers did not believe Söckchen would ever walk again. But then one of Buse’s colleagues discovered e-NABLE, and after just one phone call, e-NABLE co-founder Lars Thalmann traveled to Walsrode to take a look at Söckchen. Soon after he arrived, Thalmann started taking the measurements he needed to 3D print a new left leg for Söckchen.

It’s not the first time we’ve seen 3D printed prosthetics manufactured for animals: a Labrador Retriever named Hanna has a 3D printed bionic tooth and Shila the mixed breed dog has two 3D printed legs, while Grecia the toucan received a 3D printed prosthetic beak, a caiman lizard named Hiss Majesty has multiple 3D printed prosthetics to compensate for his missing leg, and Bagpipes the penguin has a 3D printed prosthetic foot. But this is the first 3D printed prosthetic for an animal recipient that e-NABLE has ever made. As such, it took Thalmann a couple of attempts to get Söckchen’s new leg just right.

Buse said, “The first prosthesis was a perfect imitation of Söckchen’s leg, but it was a bit heavy and caused friction on her healthy leg.”

The second prosthetic leg that Thalmann created with 3D printing technology did not include claws, and seems to be working much better.

Buse said, “It looks much simpler and the bird is getting by great with it.”

Söckchen doesn’t seem to have slowed down at all since receiving her new leg, running and flying just like the other birds at the Walsrode sanctuary. Buse says that Söckchen’s 3D printed leg is not a burden to the secretary bird, but controversy still surrounds the topic of 3D printed prosthetics for animals.

According to ornithologist Christoph Katz, who looks after a stalk sanctuary in Loburg, “Inflammation unfortunately continues to be a common problem with prosthetics. We have tried a range of different prosthetics, but the other leg always seems to become overloaded, causing inflammations. It really restricts the quality of life enjoyed by the bird.”

As mentioned previously, Buse says that Söckchen is not having any issues with her new leg. We’ve even heard of humans having issues with prosthetics, and children quickly grow out of their artificial limbs, so it’s not just a problem for animals. But the larger issue here is one of ethics. Is it okay for humans to put artificial limbs on animals? Prosthetics and other advanced levels of veterinary care made possibly by newer technologies do raise certain questions, as we’ve examined before.

[Image: Philipp Schulze via AP]

“Prosthetic limbs aren’t just medically complex; their application also pose a lot of ethical questions. The most important question to ask is whether sporting a prosthetic limb brings any benefit to the animal – ultimately that’s the main criteria,” explained Peter Kunzman, a professor at the University of Veterinary Medicine in Hannover. “The animal needs to be happy in life.”

Kunzman believes that these types of artificial limbs should not be attached to animals just so their lives are bearable – it’s not worth it if the animal can’t still live a fulfilling life. Discuss in the Secretary Bird forum at 3DPB.com.

[Sources/Images: DW, The Hour]

 

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