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A San Diego Zoo penguin struggled with bumblefoot, but his new boots help him thrive

Lucas, a 4-year-old African penguin, trying out his new boots.
Ken Bohn
San Diego Zoo
Lucas, a 4-year-old African penguin, trying out his new boots.

Lucas is doing very well in his new boots, thank you very much.

For many of us humans, there comes a time in one's life when one's feet demand the support of orthopedic footwear. Apparently, this applies to penguins, too.

This week, officials at the San Diego Zoo announced that Lucas, a 4-year-old African penguin, "has a new opportunity to thrive" after being fitted with custom orthopedic shoes made of neoprene and rubber.

"I've known Lucas for a long time, so having the ability to provide him with a chance to live a normal life brings a smile to my face," Dr. Beth Bicknese, a senior veterinarian at the zoo, said in a press release.

Lucas suffers from a chronic condition known as bumblefoot, which includes a range of degenerative foot conditions that can affect birds of all types. Lucas's bumblefoot is permanent, zoo officials said, and a lack of treatment could have led to sepsis or even death.

It began with a spinal infection that weakened his leg muscles to the point where he struggled to stand upright. Over the course of three years, veterinarians at the San Diego Zoo tried a variety of treatments: pain relievers, physical therapy, even acupuncture.

When Lucas began to develop sores, the zoo enlisted the help of Thera-Paw, a company that designs mobility aids and veterinary products for animals, including boots for dogs and splints for pets.

"The boots are cushioned and Velcroed in place, so they will help Lucas to fully participate in the colony and showcase behaviors that are more typical for a penguin — such as climbing the rocks, swimming, nesting and finding a suitable mate," said Bicknese.

After fitting Lucas with his new boots, zoo officials noticed improvements in his gait and posture, they said, allowing him better balance and an ability "to navigate his rocky habitat with greater ease."

"We were pleasantly surprised at the immediate change in Lucas after we fitted him with his new boots," said Debbie Denton, a senior wildlife care specialist at the zoo. "Seeing him move about now gives us hope that he may be OK going forward, and able to live a full life."

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
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