Inside the Pet Prosthetics Company That's Changing Animals' Lives

Bob Fugate
Bob Fugate

When Chi Chi the dog was found on the side of the road in South Korea, animal rescuers weren’t sure if she would survive. She had been badly abused and suffered severe blood flow loss to her legs, rendering them immobile. The normal course of action in that situation would have been euthanization, but Chi Chi made it clear that she wasn’t ready to give up. “I always say that her smile saved her,” Derrick Campana, founder of Animal OrthoCare, tells Mental Floss. “She was just so friendly and lovable that she got noticed.” The decision was made to amputate all four of her legs, and it wasn't long before a viral video telling Chi Chi's story caught the attention of a couple in Arizona. Shortly after moving to her new home in the U.S., Chi Chi was outfitted with prosthetics designed by Campana that allowed her to move around freely for the first time since she was rescued.

Campana and the work he does for disabled animals like Chi Chi were the focus of the first episode of Dodo Heroes, a new Animal Planet series that highlights inspiring stories of animal strength and survival. The prosthetics designer fell into the veterinary field by chance: He was working as a doctor specializing in prosthetics for people when a canine patient was brought in to his practice. The doctor the dog was supposed to see wasn’t in, so Campana decided to build an artificial limb for the pooch himself. “I got so much satisfaction and fulfillment out of it that I knew it was something I wanted to do forever,” he says. He launched Animal OrthoCare, his animal bracing and prosthetics company, one month later.

There aren’t many options out there for pet owners looking to provide comfortable, effective prosthetics to their disabled animals. A dog amputee might be fitted with a canine cart, while larger wild animals with missing or dysfunctional limbs are often put down. And when prosthetics are available, the choices are usually limited, sticking pets with something that can exacerbate their pain and discomfort.

Derrick Campana builds a custom leg brace for Jabu the elephant.
Derrick Campana builds a custom leg brace for Jabu the elephant.
Animal Planet

Animal OrthoCare is different: It’s the only company in the U.S. that offers custom animal braces, and it’s one of only a handful of custom animal orthotics companies on earth. Animals in need around the world can take advantage of its services. For most requests, Campana mails out a casting kit to the owner or veterinarian of the animal patient. After a cast is made of the patient’s limb, it’s mailed back to Animal OrthoCare’s shop in Virginia, where Campana and his team use it to build a custom prosthetic from medical-grade foam. It takes about a week on average before the final product is ready to ship to the customer's home, where they can attach it to their pet themselves using a hook-and-strap system that can be adjusted for maximum comfort.

In addition to being convenient, the treatment is also relatively affordable, with dog prosthetics starting at $750. Since founding Animal OrthoCare, Campana has helped roughly 20,000 animals walk again—and walk more comfortably.

Chi Chi the Golden Retriever and Jabu the elephant, the two patients featured in Campana's episode of Dodo Heroes, represent two of his biggest challenges to date. Chi Chi is a survivor of the South Korean dog meat trade, and she had been hung upside-down by her legs for so long that it cost her all four of her limbs. According to Campana, quadriplegic dogs are very rare, and dogs with four prosthetics are even rarer. By visiting Chi Chi in her home and adjusting the fit of her artificial limbs, he makes sure she can walk freely without doing any further damage to her body.

Jabu, a 31-year-old elephant living in Botswana, is another extreme example of the animals Campana gets to work with. After Jabu fell into a ditch and injured his leg, the caretakers at the wildlife preserve where he lives reached out to Animal OrthoCare for help. Campana says the leg brace he constructed for the 6-ton creature is likely the world’s first elephant brace. Without it, Jabu may not have survived even another minor injury. “A dog can have this type of injury and live a fine life, but for an animal like Jabu in the wild, it's life-threatening,” he says. “If you're lame out in the African bush, you're not going to live.”

Jabu the elephant.
Jabu the elephant.
Living With Elephants

Chi Chi and Jabu are two extraordinary cases, but the impact Derrick Campana had on their lives is typical of the work he does for animals on a regular basis. You can watch the full episode here.

Tune in to Dodo Heroes on Animal Planet on Saturdays at 9 p.m. ET.

5 Ways You Can Help the Jaguar Rescue Center Save Costa Rica’s Wildlife

A curious sloth says hello after members of the Jaguar Rescue Center reunited her with her baby.
A curious sloth says hello after members of the Jaguar Rescue Center reunited her with her baby.
Jaguar Rescue Center

In 2005, Catalonian primatologist Encar Garcia and her husband, Italian herpetologist Sandro Alviani, were living in southwestern Costa Rica when locals began to bring them injured animals in hopes that the two experts could save them. As word spread and more animals arrived, their property slowly transformed into a full-fledged rescue center. So they purchased the surrounding land and named their new organization the Jaguar Rescue Center (JRC), after one of their early rescues: a young, orphaned jaguar whose mother had been killed by farmers.

Today, the center covers nearly 5.5 acres of land near Puerto Viejo de Talamanca in Costa Rica’s Limón province. It can accommodate around 160 animals at a time, and is home to everything from spider monkeys to sea turtles (though, by law, staff members aren’t allowed to accept domesticated animals like cats and dogs).

While locals still bring injured and orphaned animals to the JRC, others are brought by tourists, the Ministry of Environment and Energy, the National Animal Health Service, and even the police, who confiscate animals that have been poached or illegally kept as pets.

howler monkey at jaguar rescue center
Skye, a young howler monkey who recovered from electrocution.
Jaguar Rescue Center

The rescues are often victims of road accidents, animal attacks, environmental destruction, human interaction, or electrocution from exposed power lines. After the animals are rehabilitated, they’re released into La Ceiba Natural Reserve, a human-free (except for JRC workers) part of the forest where they can safely reacclimate to living in the wild. The JRC has cameras installed in the area to monitor the animals after their release and make sure they’re finding enough food.

Unfortunately, not all the creatures brought to the JRC recover from their injuries—in 2019, for example, 311 of the 749 rescues died [PDF]—so JRC staff members and volunteers understand just how remarkable it is to watch an animal regain its health and be successfully returned to its natural environment.

“There are so many amazing things about working for the JRC, but I think we all can agree that seeing a rescued animal make it through rehabilitation and be released is the best and most rewarding part of the job,” Torey, a JRC tour guide, tells Mental Floss.

Some thought-to-be-orphaned sloths are even released right back into the arms of their mothers. After recording the cries of a baby sloth, JRC staff will take the sloth back to wherever it was first found, play the recording, and wait for the mother to recognize the cries and (slowly) climb down from her leafy abode to reunite with her child.

Despite its partnerships with government agencies, the JRC doesn’t receive government funding. Instead, it relies on public donations and revenue from its visitor services. Find out more about how you can help below.

1. Donate money.

You can make a one-time or monthly donation that will go toward food, medical care, and supplies for the animals, or you can donate specifically to the JRC’s “Shock Free Zone” program, which insulates power lines and transformers that run through forests to prevent them from electrocuting wildlife.

2. Donate items.

Check out the JRC’s Amazon wish list to see which items are most needed—and what they’ll be used for, too. Examples include Pampers diapers for baby monkeys, snake hooks for safely rescuing snakes, and cans of worms to feed birds, opossums, and bats.

One of the most important products on the list is powdered goat’s milk, which staff members use to feed orphans of many mammalian species at the JRC.

“It has the most universally digestible enzyme compared to other milk,” Torey says. “Unfortunately, we do not have sloth milk, monkey milk, etc. readily available for the baby animals.”

3. “Adopt” an animal.

diavolino, a margay at the jaguar rescue center
Diavolino, the Jaguar Rescue Center's "feisty little margay."
Jaguar Rescue Center

For $105, you can virtually “adopt” an animal at the JRC. Choices range from Diavolino, a “feisty little margay” rescued from the illegal pet trade, to Floqui, a whitish two-fingered sloth who was born with only one digit on each hand and foot.

4. Visit the Jaguar Rescue Center.

You can stay overnight at the JRC in one of its three visitor residences—La Ceiba House, Ilán Ilán House, or one of the Jaguar Inn bungalows—which offer a variety of amenities, restaurant service, and access to nearby beaches.

Whether or not you’re staying there, you can book a tour of the JRC, where you’ll get to explore the premises and even meet some of the animals. There are private, public, nighttime, and VIP tours, and you can find out more here.

5. Volunteer at the Jaguar Rescue Center.

If you’re looking for a more hands-on, potentially life-changing way to help Costa Rica’s wildlife, you can apply for the JRC’s four-week volunteer program or a position at La Ceiba Natural Reserve that lasts three to six months.

According to the website, JRC volunteers are housed in the Jaguar Inn and help with “a broad range of tasks, from doing the dishes and cleaning up after the animals ... to building and remodeling enclosures, or babysitting a new arrival to ease the stress of their new environment.”

La Ceiba volunteers, on the other hand, stay right on the reserve and do everything from monitoring captive and recently released animals to keeping the trails clear.

Find out more about becoming a volunteer here.

YouTube Star Coyote Peterson Brings 'Misunderstood' Animals to His New Animal Planet Series

Animal Planet
Animal Planet

As host of the popular YouTube series Brave Wilderness, Coyote Peterson is no stranger to going face-to-face with creatures many deem terrifying—think great white sharks and pit vipers—but that he says are simply "misunderstood."

Animals have always been a big part of Peterson's life, even before he made a career out of being stung and bitten by ferocious critters. The Ohio native studied video production and directing at Ohio State University, and then decided to combine his two passions—film and all things wild—to teach viewers about wildlife and the importance of conservation. His YouTube channel currently has more than 15 million subscribers.

Now Peterson is embarking on a new adventure with Animal Planet in the show Brave the Wild. He'll travel all over the world with wildlife biologist Mario Aldecoa and his crew, sharing creatures that aren't often in the spotlight and that viewers may find a little frightening. He recently chatted with Mental Floss about the importance of conservation, his thing for snapping turtles, and his close encounter with a jaguar and her three cubs.

You’ve said your love of animals started with snapping turtles. Can you talk about the first time you saw one and what about them fascinated you so much?

The first snapping turtle I caught was when I was only 8 years old. I was always fascinated with turtles, because at first glance they look prehistoric, almost dinosaur-like. Growing up in Ohio, I never got to see any "exotic" animals. My favorite thing to watch on TV was Steve Irwin. Watching him wrestle crocs is what inspired me to catch my first snapping turtle, the most dangerous animal Ohio has to offer.

Coyote Peterson with a gigantic snapping turtle
Animal Planet

In Brave the Wild, you introduce animals that are often feared or misunderstood. What's the importance in exposing viewers to these creatures?

One of my goals through this series was to inspire people to overcome their fears of these seemingly dangerous animals and learn to admire them from a safe distance. The more you understand these creatures, the less you are afraid of them. One of the messages I try to convey in every episode is the importance of conservation.

What’s the most "misunderstood" creature you've encountered?

The most misunderstood creature that comes to mind is the carpet shark, which we filmed in season one. As I always say, people’s biggest fears are the three S’s (sharks, snakes and spiders). The carpet shark is found off the coast of Australia. They only bite humans in the case of mistaken identity. To some of these sharks a person’s foot might look like a fish. Any time you enter a new environment you need to be aware of what you need to look for, not only to keep yourself safe, but the animal as well.

What goes into preparing for each encounter to make sure you and the animals come out alive?

With any new expedition, you need to come into the environment knowing exactly what to expect. When encountering a new animal, I try to stay as calm as I can and have no hesitation. If I stay calm, the animal stays calm, [and] I'm creating a safer interaction for myself. I use different tactics when I encounter different animals. It also depends on whether the environment is land or in water.

How do you keep your composure on camera when you're in a potentially dangerous situation?

Any situation I find myself in, I look at it as my job. For example, I would be afraid operating a crane, because that is something I don't do. If it's part of your job, it's something that you get used to. When I do my job, I make sure I'm focused and never hesitate. Before I encounter any animal, I know what I'm going to say to the camera. I say that, for the best show, we always need to have the camera rolling so the audience can see what is happening.

Coyote Peterson with a kangaroo
Animal Planet

You were in Australia filming Brave the Wild during bushfire season. What was that like?

Visiting Australia was one of the best experiences I had filming the show. Australia is a fascinating country that has so many unique environments. We spent over 50 days in Australia and encountered more than 35 different species. We were there right before all these devastating fires started, and we got to witness the severity of the drought and all the different animals it impacted.

What was your favorite animal encounter in upcoming series?

Each encounter I have in the wild is special. I would have to say that the most exciting moment for me was when we were filming in Brazil and I saw a jaguar and three of her cubs up close. Not only did I get to see this in real life, but my amazing team was able to capture this special moment on tape. It is just so amazing seeing these animals survive and thrive in the wild while dealing with not only the dangers of the wild but human encroachment as well. Hands down, this was my favorite episode that we got to film.

Catch new episodes of Brave the Wild on Animal Planet, Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT.

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