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SOS Rhino : In the News : Rhino gives boot to post-surgical solution

Rhino gives boot to post-surgical solution

News Staff Reporter
DENNIS C. ENSER/Buffalo News

Buffalo Zoo veterinarian Frank Ridgely fits one of two custom-made rubber boots on Hank, a greater one-horned Indian rhino. The fancy footwear was designed to protect the animal's hind feet, which were surgically repaired during a 90-minute operation.

He propped up half of his 4,800 pounds on his front legs, sniffed, snorted, rose to all fours, wobbled and promptly fell backward with a resounding thud.

Then Hank, the greater one-horned Indian rhino, did the same thing all over again - twice - in the process of giving the boot to two custom-made rubber boots a team headed by Buffalo Zoo veterinarian Frank Ridgely had just slipped over his surgically repaired hind feet.

"He didn't get his footing as quickly as we'd have liked," Ridgley said Wednesday after the 90-minute operation in the rhino barn.

Manufactured by Pirelli Tire Co. in Arkansas and donated to the zoo, the boots are designed to correct a problem common to captive male Indian rhinos: The bottoms of their rear feet tend to develop cracks, making it difficult for them to walk, let alone mate.

It's a condition with which the massive animals do not have to cope in the tall-grass swamps of their native India and southern Nepal.

From the zoo's perspective, Hank's defective soles could stand in the way of establishing a breeding program for the endangered Indian rhino. Because of poaching and loss of habitat, the population in the wild has dwindled to about 2,000, so it is up to the world's zoos to grow the captive population from the current total of 135, which includes Hank and his female companion, Tashi.

Using padded rubber boots to solve the foot-cracking is a novel approach - one that Ridgley figures may take lots of time and tweaking.

If he was disappointed that the first attempt failed, it didn't show.

"The surgery went great," he said, referring to the trimming of nails and teeth and suturing of soft tissue that he, Dr. Jim Albert and veterinary technician Alice Rohauer - assisted by seven other zoo staff members - undertook while the anesthetized Hank lay on his left side.

The tools included a carbon-tipped grinding blade, huge steel nail cutters, 2-inch-thick lengths of rope used to hoist Hank's right legs into the air and a bicycle tire pump to inflate the padded boots.

The animal's struggle to stand after the procedure caused the boots to dislodge, temporarily defeating the experiment.

"They tried using a flat boot at the Miami Zoo 12 or 13 years ago," Ridgely said. "These are new therapeutic boots designed to tip his feet forward and keep the weight off the soft tissue.

"It's the type of thing where you may have to do many, many surgeries. We'll slip on the boots and try again in maybe a few weeks."

Meanwhile, Henry's foot problem will be eased by rubber matting that Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co. donated to line the inside of his stall and 60 yards of compost that the Town of Amherst contributed to cushion the outdoor rhino yard.