Hyogo: Injured stork struts once again thanks to a bespoke prosthetic leg

Courtesy of the Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork
A stork stands up wearing a prosthetic leg in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture.
The Yomiuri Shimbun

TOYOOKA, Hyogo — A stork that lost half of its left leg will soon get a fitting prosthetic leg, at the Hyogo Park of the Oriental White Stork in Toyooka, Hyogo Prefecture.

The stork, with a scar on its right leg, is a female that just left the nest last July. After being taken in at the park, she was being rehabilitated with an improvised artificial leg made by a veterinarian. However, the handmade item didn’t fit the bird well enough.

Having heard about the problem, a teacher at a medical vocational school — skilled in prosthetic legs for humans — offered to help.

The injured stork was found last year by citizens, who reported a toe on her left leg was swollen. The park’s staff members tried to catch her in October but failed.

When the stork was spotted later in Tokushima Prefecture, half of her left leg was missing as a result of necrosis. At the time, she seemed able to balance on her right leg alone and somehow catch food.

However, on Jan. 21 this year, she was found by a nearby resident in a reservoir in the southern part of Hyogo Prefecture in a weakened state.

When the park took her in, she had lost 80% of her normal weight and could not stand on her own. The park staff fed her about 750 grams of food — 50% more than usual — a day, in two or three divided portions. She regained her strength enough to stand on one leg by Feb. 4.

Although still able to fly, she was found to also have scarring on the back of her right leg.

Veterinarian Rei Matsumoto, who works at the park, decided to make an artificial leg for the stork after the usual medical cast was found to not be strong enough to support its weight.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Veterinarian Rei Matsumoto explains his handmade, artificial leg in Toyooka.

Through repeated trial and error using items purchased at a 100-yen shop, he at last succeeded in creating an artificial leg that can be adjusted in length. The leg is made of a miniature baseball bat and a tension rod. He attached a plastic toy ball and nonslip rubber sheets to the bottom of the prosthetic.

The bird became able to balance on both legs by mid-February, although initially the artificial leg seemed to be an annoyance to her. Training helped coax her to stand on both legs during feedings. However, the handmade product had the drawback that it could not withstand her full weight.

Prosthetist Noriko Kawakami heard about the problem and offered to help. The 29-year-old is a teacher at the Sanda Campus of Kobe College of Medical Welfare, which is located in Sanda, Hyogo Prefecture. She felt a strong desire to help the animal after having learned about the importance of walking aids for animals when her dog was paralyzed in the lower part of its body in a car accident during her childhood. She said the experience made her want to become a prosthetist.

She has worked on a number of prosthetic legs, but this was her first time to make a limb for a bird. In late March, she made a mold of the amputated part of the left leg out of gypsum to create a 44-centimeter-long prototype. The upper part of the prosthetic leg is made of polyurethane to wrap around the remaining leg.

On April 6, Kawakami visited the park and attached a prototype to the stork’s injured leg. The stork put her weight on the left leg, which held. Kawakami was so moved, she burst into tears.

“I was wondering if it would work because it is not a human leg,” Kawakami said. She will continue to check for any problems and complete a lighter one in the future.

“Unlike the leg made of something like toys, the prosthetic leg fits the bird and should reduce the burden on the right leg,” said Matsumoto. “It may be difficult for her to walk completely, but I think she will be able to move one or two steps with her new leg.”

For the time being, the park will continue rehabilitating the stork in an indoor facility and will consider whether it is possible to move her to an outdoor facility.

Storks in Japan

In Japan, storks were once extinct in the wild by 1971. However, the birds have been released after being bred in facilities in various parts of the country, and as of last year, over 200 storks live in the wild, including ones that humans have partially helped care for.

It is unclear how the female stork’s leg became necrotic. Veterinarian Rei Matsumoto said it is possible her toe got caught in a hunting trap and was then injured when she escaped from the trap. A juvenile stork was also sheltered in August 2019, after the bird had its toes severed by a trap.

“There are more and more cases of storks being injured by traps. I hope something can be done,” Matsumoto said.