Companion and Urban Animals > Wild Animals > Wild Bird Index
Woman Designs Tiny Shoes to Help Disabled Birds Walk

by Laura Simpson
June 8, 2012

Written by Sue Randall of Johannesburg, South Africa

Seven years ago, a little bird fell into our lives. My friend Johann and I were living in a small community in the mountains, and one day the gardener brought two baby birds to me. He had found them under a tree. The adult birds were calling like crazy in the trees above. We looked everywhere for a nest, wanting to put the babies back, but found none. It had probably been destroyed in the previous day's storm.

I phoned a friend who did bird rescue work, and she told me what to feed the babies and how to keep them warm. It was the first time I had looked after baby birds and it was one of the most intense experiences of my life. Baby birds are known to "imprint" on humans -- but we humans do exactly the same back! Johann and I were very upset when, on day 5, the smaller bird walked out of the sleeping box and dropped dead. It had been a runt. We had nicknamed the babies Chubby and Skinny, not realizing that even Chubby was undersized. Skinny was far smaller and probably never stood much of a chance.

Baby photo of chubby

When Skinny died, we started facing up to the fact that Chubby was disabled. I had noticed her deformed legs on the first day but had been so intent on providing food and warmth that I had barely stopped to think. By the time our friend confirmed that Chubby was too disabled ever to be released, Johann and I had bonded very deeply with the bird. Euthanizing her seemed unthinkable.
Chubby was a really happy and friendly little bird. She did not seem to be in any pain from her legs. We believed that she wanted to live and that she had come into our lives for a reason, but she would never be able to walk properly, or to grip a branch. I knew she needed shoes or prostheses. The Grey Lourie (also known as the Grey Go-away Bird) is quite a large bird, and fitting shoes to Chubby's legs would be possible in a way that it would not be with a smaller species.

Johann and I were not living in a good situation. We did not own the land we lived on and we would have to borrow the money to build an aviary, but my main concern--which soon became an obsession--was making shoes for Chubby. If I could not find a way to do that, then euthanasia would indeed be the only option. I tried making shoes out of denim, neoprene, rubber. Nothing worked. I could not attach the shoes firmly enough that they did not fall off or twist around the legs. We seemed to be losing the battle.

We Couldn't Give Up on Her

Yet Chubby was playful and she was learning to fly. She seemed blissfully unaware that her feet did not work and that we might not be able to save her life. I thought of all the people in the world who have disabilities in every imaginable body part, all the prostheses and adaptations that have ever been designed for humans. This was just a little bird! Her needs were so much simpler. And yet I could not find the way forward.

My sister had broken a finger a few months earlier and suddenly she had an idea. She suggested that I contact her hand therapist and ask for some offcuts of finger-splinting material. I called her therapist and she said she would be delighted to help. The next day Johann collected the splinting material from her rooms in the city. As soon as he got home, we started experimenting. Within an hour, we had made Chubby's first pair of shoes! For the first time ever she was able to walk, run, and balance without difficulty. She became even more playful and happy, and trundled around in her little shoes as if they had always been part of her.

A friend donated some money to help us build an aviary, and Johann and a neighbor put it together. It had to be specially adapted because of Chubby’s disability. She would never have feet that gripped, so we built a network of little ladder ramps and put up flat planks instead of branches. Now Chubby was able to fly, feed, bathe, preen, run around and sun herself independently.

And Soon Another Arrived

Our bird rescue friend brought another lourie to us because its legs were deformed in almost the exact same way as Chubby's. This bird also needed shoes, and we made them the next day. We called her Scruffy because her feathers were such a mess. She was a juvenile, almost a young adult. Her story was tragic. She must have fallen out of the nest and broken both legs, which then healed in a broken position. Humans did not intervene until it was too late, but her bird parents had kept her alive by bringing food down to her on the ground. Scruffy had miraculously survived.

Her injuries were old and inflexible by the time she came to us and our friend estimated that she was 3 or 4 months old. The people had noticed that their dogs were excited about something in the swimming pool enclosure. They kept an eye out and soon realized that there was a young bird in there, and that her bird parents were bringing her food on the ground. The humans finally intervened, and Scruffy ended up with our friend and then us. She was extremely traumatized and had no long feathers in either the tail or wings. It was clear she had never flown.

Scruffy running

What would you do, knowing that a juvenile bird had been kept alive for so long by its parents after a major injury? Would you simply euthanize her? We couldn't. And so Johann and I now had two louries that wore shoes! Neither bird seemed to be in any pain. Chubby seems to have a genetic problem. We don’t think her legs were ever broken the way Scruffy's probably were.

Some of Chubby's tail feathers persistently grow upside down. Our friend thought that her leg deformity might have been caused by a lack of vitamin B or calcium, but Chubby's upside-down tail feathers suggest something stranger.

Both birds had to go through a process of learning what they could and could not do. Scruffy's feathers took about 3 months to regrow, and she then became such a strong flier that Johann nicknamed her Superbird. She is the only bird I have ever known that could turn right angles in mid-air just for the fun of it. She has an independent spirit and it took her a while to learn that she could not land on the only real branch in the aviary. Once she accepted that, she stayed on the flat planks. She was extremely active and seemed to love life.

The process was similar to that which any disabled person must go through. You have to learn your limits, and that means testing them and making some mistakes. It's not easy. It’s life. It doesn’t mean you need to be euthanized.

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