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New boots give adored San Diego Zoo penguin another chance to thrive

Lucas now has a new opportunity to thrive, thanks to intervention by the zoo’s wildlife teams and a new pair of boots.

SAN DIEGO — An adored and important penguin at the San Diego Zoo is getting new shoes to help with a painful condition.

Lucas is a prominent member of the San Diego Zoo’s African penguin colony who was diagnosed with a degenerative foot condition. Lucas now has a new opportunity to thrive, thanks to intervention by the Zoo’s wildlife heath and wildlife care specialist teams.

Lucas has a chronic condition known as bumblefoot. If left untreated, bumblefoot can lead to sepsis and death by secondary infection

Lucas' medical journey

The 4-year-old penguin’s medical journey started more than three years ago, when he developed a spinal infection that left him with weak muscles in his legs and the inability to properly stand upright on his toes. 

Lucas' longtime Wildlife Care Specialist Debbie Denton said, “You would see him listing to the right a bit and you would see him limping on his left foot.”

Lucas was forced to rest on areas of his ankles that would not normally touch the ground. The team at the San Diego Zoo provided Lucas with pain medication, physical therapy and acupuncture treatments to try to improve his spine, but were unable to heal his bumblefoot condition. 

As sores formed on his foot and legs, the zoo team reached out to Thera-Paw and asked them to create custom padded boots. The boots should protect the sores already on his feet and lower the risk of him developing new ones.  

How the boots are made

The San Diego Zoo staff got Lucas to walk across sand to create an impression of his foot. They mixed plaster in the footprint to create a mold to send to Thera-Paw.  

Thera-Paw Senior Fabrication Designer Martha Symon explaining how they created Lucas’ custom boots.

The designers at Thera-Paw made Lucas a custom pair of orthopedic boots of Rubber and Neoprene. Thera-Paw Senior Fabrication Designer Martha Symon said, “Since he's walking on his ankle it's going to tip him forward a little bit which is more normal for the penguin to walk.”

And Lucas seems to love them. “Since we've been able to put his shoes on him, he's shown a much more normal gait walking on flat surfaces. There's no limping. There's no favoring his left side,” Denton said. 

African penguins are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Once one of southern Africa’s most abundant seabirds, the species suffered a massive population decline from an estimated 1 million breeding pairs to only about 18,000 breeding pairs today. In the past two years alone, the population decreased more than 23%. 

Penguin eggs were commercially harvested, which had a devastating effect on the population. That’s now illegal but a lack of readily available food due to overfishing, climate change, oil and marine pollution, the emergence of avian influenza A virus and habitat degradation all contribute to a continuing population decline. 

A San Diego Zoo treasure

Lucas was one of the first two eggs hatched at the zoo. Since he hasn’t been well, he’s been a longer. With these boots and the new strut in his step, all that has changed. 

“I’ve known him since he was an egg. We’re very attached to each other. So it warms my heart to know that we've been able to do something to make him more comfortable and to make him fit in with the colony a bit better,” Denton said.

She added, “Penguins are a remarkable family of birds. There is no other type of animal that is so widely spread across an enormous geographic range, or displays so many unique characteristics among its members. As their numbers fall, every individual bird matter. It’s vital that we continue our work to ensure their continued survival for generations to come.”              

WATCH RELATED: Owner of dog safely removed from gorilla enclosure at San Diego Zoo Safari Park comes forward (June 2022).


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