TOPEKA — A giraffe born with severely deformed rear legs that had a groundbreaking procedure to give her an unusual pair of shoes is thriving as she marks her first birthday, and Topeka Zoo officials say her saga has helped repair the troubled zoo's reputation.
Hope the giraffe was born July 11, 2010, with hyperextended fetlocks, meaning each rear foot was folded forward into the lower leg. Shortly after birth, she underwent the procedure aimed at repairing her legs and saving her life.
"We didn't think she had much of a chance," said zoo director Brendan Wiley. Another giraffe born in 2005 to Hope's mother, Dolly, had the same condition and was euthanized at 7 months old.
Immediately after Hope's birth, Joe Kamer, who was the zoo's interim veterinarian at the time, placed red fiberglass casts on the calf's rear legs to immobilize them.
A few days later, he placed new casts on her legs. Eventually the casts were replaced with a soft casing attached to fabricated shoes, which were glued to the bottom of Hope's rear feet. Each shoe featured an artificial, external tendon made of rope tubing in a hard-cast material.
The shoes were made of 3/4-inch plywood and had extended heels that were based on molds of Hope's feet.
The procedure worked and Hope is acting and growing like a normal 1-year-old giraffe, zoo officials said.
"She has done so well," Wiley said. "She looks so normal. She is so normal."
Wiley became zoo director shortly before Hope was born. It also was shortly after the U.S. Department of Agriculture criticized the zoo for numerous animal deaths, its professional accreditation was tabled and most of its managers left or were fired. The Association of Zoos and Aquariums withheld the zoo's accreditation until finally granting full accreditation in March.
Wiley said Hope's ordeal and recovery has helped the zoo's image and employee morale.
"A lot of perceptions began to shift," he said. "It's been incredible. Hope represents the future of giraffes here. Eventually she will be paired with a male with the purpose of continuing the giraffe population at the zoo. She gave us one common purpose to work on. There was teamwork involved.
"We're still a zoo in change, but we are a zoo with a much clearer vision than we were a year ago. We still have a long road to where we want to be."
Mayor Bill Bunten agreed that the zoo has vastly improved in the past year.
"Indeed, Hope has helped, along with the new manager," Bunten said. "I think she is the star of the zoo. ... When people see this little giraffe, they need to remember she didn't have much going for her except hope. She made it, and now she is our star."
Hope's story caught the attention of a concerned public and zoos around the country. When she had the procedure last summer, several zoos watched to see if the effort worked.