PVC Pipes Can Make Great Legs

©Adrian Gaut / Art + Commerce

PVC Pipes Can Make Great Legs

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

By Michele Wilson Berger
Published: 01/25/2012

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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Michele Berger

Michele Berger is Audubon magazine's Associate Editor and social media manager. Follow her on Twitter @MicheleWBerger. Follow the magazine on Facebook.

Type: Author | From: Audubon Magazine


Injured SandHill Crane

I too am a fan of the SandHill Cranes. Yes, a Craniac. The article on the artificial leg for injured Sandhill Cranes was wonderful...I just dont understand the agencies stand on let nature take its course this beautiful creature just needs some assistance not a miracle. Any assistance that is available to assist with one that is injured would be much appreciated, or a antibiotic to help with an abcess or foot injury so that the bird can heal. Any assistance would be greatly appreciated, by myself and the Beautiful Sandhill Cranes....

Sandhill Crane with leg injury

I have had a Sandhill Crane that has been coming for the last few weeks with its right leg gone several inches below the knee. The stub is now healing over but, noticed over the last several days that the two outside toes on the remaining foot have become increasingly swollen.
The left, outside toe is the size of a plum and the inside toe the size of a quarter. The young crane comes by to visit the bird /squirrel feeder 2 to 3 times daily and now waits anxiously for a large cool bowl of water. The bird was hopping/flying to the feeder everyday to eat and would then rest under the large oak for the day. It appears the rest of his group would come by for him every evening and they fly off together. Next morning they all come to eat and again leave him for the day. Yesterday I noticed how swollen the toes were and he was laying down waiting to eat and was not standing any length of time. The one toe has what appears to be an abcess on the side of the toe with the most swelling. He is very uncomfortable standing now. I noticed a small hole w/ what appered to be pus discharge yesterday. I have called Local Vets, FWC , Animal Control, and several Bird Rehabbers who all say as long as the bird can fly and is eating they will not interfere. It seems sensless that this poor Bird just needs help and no one is willing to do so. A antibiotic to help with the infection would at least assist in his healing. Any suggestions? If a antibiotic would help in his water or food where would I get assistance for this bird without someone putting the bird down. It seems cruel to ignore this gentle birds quest for food and assist in his healing if possible...If there is anything you can do to assist this poor sandhill crane, I would be greatly appreciate it as would the Crane. It appears the leg that is missing the bottom half may have been bitten off by a gator or some other animal but, is healing well the toes on the other foot would leave him with no legs and a brutal fate... All agencies state as long as the bird can fly and eat they will not interfere.

PVC crane let

This was a wonderful bit of info for a Monday morning. There is no one that I know of in the Orlando area that can do much for cranes with amputated legs. I am an official craniac and have long watched over the many sandhills on the lake in back of my house. How awful that Fish and Wildlife requires that they be put down. I took one to with a broken leg to Wet and Wild a few years ago and suppose that is what happened to it

Thanks for the note, Bettye.

Thanks for the note, Bettye. We're craniacs here, too (if you can't tell)!

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