Wild idea: Sahebrao, the tiger hurt by poacher in India, to get ‘world first’ fake paw

International effort underway to fit animal with prothesis after it lost toes in a trap six years ago and has been in pain ever since

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 11:14am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 28 August, 2018, 11:15am

An international team of surgeons have started measuring an Indian tiger for an artificial paw, thought to be the first attempt in the world to fit one of the animals with a prosthesis.

The eight-year-old male named Sahebrao was caught in a poacher’s trap along with his brother six years ago. The older sibling died, but Sahebrao was rescued and taken to the Maharashtra Animal and Fisheries Science University for treatment.

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Sahebrao arrived unconscious and suffering from renal failure. He recovered, but part of his left paw had become gangrenous in the steel trap and required amputation. He was moved to a zoo and then an animal rescue centre in Nagpur city, central Maharashtra, where he earned a reputation as an ornery and aggressive animal.

Last year, Indian orthopaedic surgeon Sushrut Babhulkar visited the animal rescue centre after learning it was caring for the 200kg tiger, which the centre claims is Asia’s largest in captivity.

“He was like a royal king, truly magnificent,” Babhulkar said.

He said the animal approached the edge of its cage where he was standing with his family and began growling and lifting its injured paw.

“All accompanying me got frightened and ran away but I was frozen,” he said.

The surgeon, who is the chief of a centre for joint reconstruction surgery in Nagpur, said he believed the animal was growling from pain, not fear or anger.

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“I do this work every day, I could guess what was going on with the tiger.”

In February, Babhulkar started talking to veterinary surgeons in the UK and US about whether the tiger could be fitted with a prosthetic paw. On Sunday, Sahebrao underwent his first X-rays to determine the extent of the injury and create a model for the prosthesis.

The next stage will be to correct the amputation to relieve the tiger of pain by removing any swollen nerves or bones that were misaligned during the original procedure, he said. “That surgery will take place in December, then we will wait between four and six months when the tiger is free of pain before we move onto the next phase.”

A team of veterinary surgeons from across the US will help to determine what kind of prosthesis is required and if it can be attached and maintained.

Shanti Jha, a veterinary orthopaedic surgeon based in Arizona, said: “You can see in the X-rays that his middle two toes are missing, and for a big cat those are the most important for weight bearing.”

He said Sahebrao would then undergo a CAT scan to help vets understand what kind of prosthesis to design: one that could be fused to its leg, or a larger appendage that could be attached like a ski boot. “Most likely there will be something strapped onto his arm, that would be better,” Jha said.

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Surgeons from Switzerland’s AV Foundation and the University of Leeds are also involved in the operation.

Should they succeed in fitting Sahebrao with an artificial device, ensuring he does not tear it off will be the next challenge, and will probably require a specialist animal behaviourist, Jha said.

“You can train animals to use an attached prosthetic. I’ve replaced the whole arm of a dog” he said. “We’ve done it with feisty cats, but they’re domestic. This is a wild animal.”