Rescue group helping birds get their waddle back

CorrespondentMarch 3, 2013 

Cosmo lay in the clinic lobby, panting in his crate.

Each time he tried to stand up, the stub where his right foot had been made him stumble and fall on his towel. He kept trying.

Cosmo had been through a lot to get here. But if things went right this day, he would be leaving with a shiny new web-shaped foot.

“I think we’re ready,” the vet said. “Let’s grab the goose.”

Six months earlier, Cosmo had arrived at the Carolina Waterfowl Rescue in Indian Trail, near Charlotte – he had been the last goose left in a Virginia pond.

Director Jennifer Gordon doesn’t know how Cosmo lost the leg.

“Could have been a big turtle,” she said. “They try to grab the leg, drag them under and eat and kill them.

“They said all the other geese had been killed but him – and he had lost the leg.”

Other times, she said, birds get tangled in fishing line.

“I’ve had them come in with the fishing line on and the wing literally falls off,” she said. “There’s nothing you can do for them at that point.”

What made things worse for Cosmo, she said, is how social he is. He’ll call out to the other rescue geese but then can’t move because of his missing leg.

“It’ll probably change his personality once he gets the new one,” Gordon said. “Because right now, they have a pecking order and he’s kinda at the bottom.”

A leg up

Animal prostheses are not new, but many people don’t know much about them, said Denis Marcellin-Little, a veterinarian and professor of orthopedic surgery at N.C. State University.

“One of the weaknesses of our profession at this time is that every time someone does it, it sounds like the first time someone’s doing it,” Marcellin-Little said.

In dogs and cats, many veterinarians prefer amputation to fitting a new leg, he said.

“Removing a limb completely is more convenient than working with a partial limb,” he said. “Partial amputations aren’t popular because they create need for prostheses, which are complicated and technical.”

Not every animal missing a leg needs a prosthetic, he said, but many who do never get one.

“There is some momentum to further develop the science of animal prostheses at N.C. State,” Marcellin-Little said. “Their use is growing; thousands of pets have benefitted.”

But for now, he said, cultural factors also slow progress.

“People are under the impression that a pet having a missing leg’s not a big deal,” he said. “Since they can still move, people don’t worry about the fine details.”

The fine details

“I may cry, this is so exciting,” Gordon said.

Back at the Avian Veterinary Services Clinic in Durham, Dr. Greg Burkett was getting ready to put Cosmo under to fit his new black, carbon graphite foot.

“We’re going to take a little nap,” Burkett whispered as he lay the bird on the clinic table with a hose down its beak. “That’s a good goose.”

Cosmo honked and struggled a bit, but soon went limp. It was his third time here for a fitting, but this time, everyone thought, he was taking the leg home.

David Sickles, a prosthetist at the Center for Orthotic & Prosthetic Care, had designed the foot.

“Humans are easy,” Sickles said. “We can just order the parts for them.”

Curiosity led him to dabble in parts for animals, too. He’s already designed two legs for a deer that lost hers in a car collision, and a new beak for a crow.

“We’re just having some fun,” Sickles said.

Cosmo’s foot had to be designed from scratch, from a cast of his stump. It slipped on quickly, and Cosmo was woken up.

“You wanna try to stand him?” Burkett said.

“Let’s do it,” said Sickles.

Burkett placed his hands beneath Cosmo’s stomach to help the groggy goose get his footing.

“Seems like we need to change this angle just a little bit,” Sickles told Anthony Harvey, a technician who worked with the cast Sickles took to design the foot.

“We can change the alignment here,” Harvey said, looking it over.

“We’re real close,” Sickles said.

And with a little help, Cosmo was standing up on two legs.

Work in progress

At Dr. Burkett’s office, not only had they found the goose was eager to get back on its feet – they found out Cosmo was actually a girl.

“She’s still a work in progress,” Gordon said weeks later, back at the rescue center. The leg was working well, she said – too well.

“We were leaving it on all day and let her go off. And that’s when it broke.”

But Gordon said in an email that they are working to get Cosmo going again without having to make a fourth trip to Durham.

“It was just (a small break) at the bend in the foot,” she wrote. If they can’t fix it themselves, she said, they’ll get Cosmo back in the crate and on the road.

Each time they try, she said, Cosmo gets closer to her old self.

“Now she’s kind of depressed because it’s broke and she was used to having it,” Gordon said. “She’s trying to figure out why it doesn’t work. But we’ll get her going again.”

Photos of Cosmo with her new leg, posted on the rescue center’s Facebook page, have drawn comments from people with birds with similar problems.

Carolina Waterfowl Rescue, which Gordon started, is a nonprofit rehabilitation center that seeks homes for injured birds – not just waterfowl anymore – and provides a decent life for those it can’t place like Cosmo.

“Nobody wants to adopt a bird with one leg,” she said.

The rescue can be found on Facebook and at

“I’ve had at least 10 people from around the country email and say, ‘Hey, I have a goose who needs a leg. How do I do this?’ ” Gordon said.

For a goose, Cosmo may be one lucky duck.

Walker: 405-596-7674

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