PVC Pipes Can Make Great Legs

With some innovative thinking, one Florida rehab facility gave six injured sandhill cranes a walking chance. 

Lee Fox could just tell that Chrissy wanted to walk. There was a sense about her, a resolve that told Fox not to give up on her stately, four-foot-tall student. Like a mother waiting for her child to take her first steps, Fox anxiously held her breath. And on Christmas Eve—nearly a month after the bird’s arrival and the occasion that produced her name—Chrissy balanced precariously on her own leg and a prosthesis made from PVC pipe and a sink stopper, placing one in front of the other.

Chrissy is one of some 500,000 long-necked, long-legged gray sandhill cranes that annually migrate in flocks (“March Magic,” March-April 2010). A friend brought Fox, founder and executive director of the nonprofit rehab organization Save Our Seabirds (SOS), an injured Chrissy in Tampa five years ago, one of many birds suffering from a similar fate.

At that time in west central Florida, where SOS is located, the lanky-yet-graceful birds were losing legs at an alarming rate due to collisions with golf balls and cars. (It’s still happening today.) More than sixty percent of the hundred or so cranes that the organization was treating annually suffered accidents of this type. “They were being maimed. [They had] fractured legs, fractured wings,” Fox says. “We would bring them back to health only to have to put them down because there was no way they could stand.”

With the help of a handy friend, she invented a solution: A new leg made from a quarter-inch piece of PVC inside a two-inch piece of PVC taped to a sink stopper. The result was not the most elegant-looking answer, but an answer nonetheless—and one that worked. That’s where Kevin Carroll, the renowned prosthetic tail creator for Winter, the bottlenose dolphin that was the inspiration for last year’s movie Dolphin Tale, came in. He worked with Fox and her crew to tweak the model, eventually creating the sleeker version Chrissy and one of her five crane compatriots wear today at the 43,500-square-foot facility, their new permanent home.

Despite Fox’s success making birds mobile again, the process hasn’t been a cakewalk. Like humans with prostheses, the spot where fake limb meets real flesh must stay clean, an effort made all the more challenging because these patients can fly though they live within an enclosure. “The bandages have to be changed [every two to three weeks]. The prostheses inside get wet. We have to dry them out, make sure the leg is okay.”

The greater frustration comes in that Fox cannot legally put new legs on other sandhill cranes. U.S. Fish and Wildlife regulations require that any bird with sustained injuries necessitating leg or wing amputation be euthanized, a rule derived from recommendations by top avian veterinarians, according to USFWS official Carmen Simonton. She says the agency made an exception in the SOS case because Fox worked with a vet to create the replica legs. “We couldn’t find any studies to show that [putting a prosthesis on a crane] was humane and helpful, and we couldn’t find any studies showing that it wasn’t.”

Still, the agency doesn’t intend to accept future requests to put prostheses on birds. “It doesn’t look normal,” Simonton says. “It looks odd. You don’t see birds walking around like that. We haven’t allowed anyone else to do it.”

No matter to Fox. She uses her six cranes to educate the public about the species, which isn’t threatened or endangered but still has much to teach people about human hazards. The birds are also part of a larger study about where the sandhills treated by SOS come from within the county. “I have a hard time with the idea of putting birds down arbitrarily,” Fox says. “These birds have such tenacity.” Thanks to her ingenuity—and a little plastic pipe—six of them can still walk tall, their grand gait displayed for everyone to see.

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