San Diego Zoo penguin receives custom orthopedic footwear to thrive again


Innovative footwear is addressing the penguin's degenerative foot condition and helping to improve his quality of life

Lucas sporting his new footwear to help him go about his daily life with comfort (Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance).

Lucas sporting his new footwear to help him go about his daily life with comfort (Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance).

The San Diego Zoo announced that 4-year-old African penguin Lucas received custom orthopedic shoes to offer him relief from his degenerative foot condition, bumblefoot. This initiative was completed with the help of the zoo’s wildlife health and wildlife care specialist teams along with Thera-Paw, a national organization that designs and manufactures rehabilitative and assistive products for animals with special needs. The custom orthopedic shoes Thera-Paw made for Lucas consist of neoprene and rubber to prevent pressure sores from developing on his feet and ankle while standing and walking.

According to an organizational release,1 bumblefoot is an umbrella term for an array of avian degenerative foot conditions ranging from mild redness to deep abscesses. Bumblefoot can result in sepsis and death by secondary infection if left untreated. Because Lucas’ bumblefoot seems to be a permanent condition, the wildlife team chose to use the boots to offer him comfort and protect his feet and reduce the risk of developing more lesions.

“I’ve known Lucas for a long time, so having the ability to provide him with a chance to live a normal life brings a smile to my face,” shared Beth Bicknese, DVM, senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo, in the release. “The boots are cushioned and Velcroed in place, so they will help Lucas to fully participate in the colony and showcase behaviors that are more typical for a penguin—such as climbing the rocks, swimming, nesting, and finding a suitable mate.”

Over 3 years ago, Lucas suffered from a spinal infection resulting in weak muscles in his legs and the inability to properly stand upright on his toes. Thus, he was forced to rest on areas of his ankles that would not typically touch the ground. Though the team treated Lucas with pain medication, physical therapy, and acupuncture treatments to improve his spine, their attempts were fruitless in healing the condition. When sores started forming on his foot and legs, the team contacted representatives at Thera-Paw, asking them to develop these custom padded boots.

“This was such an amazing opportunity, and we were honored to be asked to assist the team at the San Diego Zoo,” said Ilaria Borghese, founder and president of Thera-Paw. “Over the years, we’ve tackled challenging cases like Lucas’s, and each is special and memorable. One thing that never gets old is seeing an animal’s life dramatically improve after using one of our aids. It inspires and drives us every day.”

After Lucas was fitted with his new boots, wildlife care specialists documented improved gait, enhancing his ability to maneuver his rocky habitat with more ease.1 Plus, his posture became more natural, so his balance improved while standing.

“We were pleasantly surprised at the immediate change in Lucas after we fitted him with his new boots,” said Debbie Denton, senior wildlife care specialist at the San Diego Zoo. “Seeing him move about now gives us hope that he may be OK going forward, and able to live a full life.”

According to the release,1 African penguins are listed as Endangered on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance partakes in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums’ Species Survival Plan (SSP) program for these endangered aquatic birds and before has collaborated with the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB), to help foster conservation programs in South Africa.

“Penguins are a remarkable family of birds,” said Denton. “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 matters. It’s vital that we continue our work to ensure their continued survival for generations to come.”


San Diego Zoo penguin gets fitted with custom orthopedic footwear. News release. San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance. August 29, 2022. Accessed August 31, 2022.

Related Videos
dvm360 Live! with Dr. Adam Christman
© 2023 MJH Life Sciences

All rights reserved.