WHEN A city resident brought a mutilated shikra, a small hawk-like predatory bird, to prosthetist Karan Bir Singh, he was unsure of what was expected of him to aid the suffering bird of prey. “We work on creating artificial limbs for humans. At the most we have done some work for pet dogs and a few cows. But to create prosthetic legs for a bird was a new ball game altogether,” Singh says.
A month on, the bird is able to stand up on her two new prosthetic legs without stumbling. “It will still take some time to rehabilitate the shikra to the extent that she can walk and fly with ease, but at least there is some hope for her survival now,” Singh says.
The shikra was brought to Singh’s artificial limb centre by Jeet Brar, a businessman and a passionate animal lover. “The bird had been electrocuted we assume and fallen next to my house. Her legs were mutilated and mangled and she was unable to stand, let alone fly or hunt,” Brar says. Unable to leave the bird to its fate, Brar took the injured shikra to a local vet who told him that it wouldn’t be able to survive in the wild for a day.
“He told me make sure we feed the bird and let her heal for a bit. First we thought only one leg of the bird was missing, but later found that the other will be separated from its body as it had been badly electrocuted,” Brar says.
After the bird recuperated a little, Brar was referred to Singh’s clinic by the veterinarian he had been consulting. “I had no clue how people knew to send the bird to us, but we took it upon us to design prosthetic legs for it even though we were not sure how we would be able to do it,” Singh says. After Brar’s first visit to the clinic, doctors and experts at the clinic began working on the novel challenge of designing prosthetics for a small, light-boned creature.
“Before we began any other work, we had to identify the exact species of the bird, because that would allow us to approximate the length of its leg and the angle at which its joints are placed. We needed to study its anatomy to understand how to make a prosthetic work,” Singh says.
The prosthetist consulted a local bird expert who told them the bird was a shikra. Since both legs of the bird had been severed by the time it reached the clinic, Singh and his team did not have a sample to mimic the structure of prosthetic leg from. “If one of its legs was in place, we could have just mimicked the length and angles and shape. But since both were not there, we had to study and research to figure out the length and angles at which the prosthetic leg will be set,” Singh says.
Another challenge for Singh’s team was to find material which could match the bone density of the bird. “We decided to use thermoplastic sheets that we import from the US for creating limbs for infants. The sheet is light and can be easily moulded to match the shape needed. We further reinforced this with aluminium so that the bird’s legs would be strong yet light enough for it to fly,” Singh says.
After a few consultations which included discussions and a few rounds of testing different versions of the prosthetics, the team of experts was able to model limbs on which the bird could stand perfectly. “We had found the perfect angle at which the joints had to be placed because the bird was able to stand perfectly. Immediately we also saw this change in the bird’s demeanor, because instead of being agitated and confused, it became more calm and quiet for a few seconds,” Singh says.
Apart from standing and walking, the shikra needs its legs to catch prey with. “Once it gets used to the legs, it can use the prosthetic claws to hold and press down its prey with, even though the process wouldn’t be as easy as was for the bird before,” Singh says. The bird will need more sitting and practice with the prosthetic legs before it can finally be left on its own. “Right now it is still confused and shaken, unsure of what we did to it. But hopefully soon it will be back to normal and we can restore it to its habitat,” says Brar, who intends to take care of the bird until it learns to use its new legs.
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