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CCSS: 7.RP.A.2.C, MP2, MP6, MP7

TEKS: 6.5A, 7.4D

Bionic Beasts

Engineer Derrick Campana helps disabled animals by building custom prosthetic limbs for them

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters via Newscom

A pony named Angel Marie received a brace and a prosthesis from Derrick Campana. The animal’s front legs were injured at birth.

Since 2002, Derrick Campana has been making prosthetic limbs, artificial devices that replace missing body parts, for humans. But in 2004, a veterinarian came to Campana’s office with an odd request. The vet’s patient, a Labrador retriever named Charles, was missing one of his legs, and its owners wanted to help the dog walk on four legs again.

Like people, animals that lose limbs or are born without them can have many difficulties moving. But in 2004, no company was making prosthetic limbs for animals. Campana decided to change that!

Fast-forward 17 years, and Campana’s company, Bionic Pets, has helped more than 30,000 animals—from dogs to kangaroos. In 2018, Campana built a leg brace for an African elephant named Jabu. No matter how big or small the creature, Campana’s design and engineering process is mostly the same.

Since 2002, Derrick Campana has been making prosthetic limbs for people. These artificial devices replace missing body parts. In 2004, a veterinarian came to Campana’s office with an odd request. The vet was treating a Labrador retriever named Charles, who was missing one of his legs. Charles’s owners wanted to help the dog walk on four legs again.

Like people, animals can lose limbs or be born without them. Sometimes this makes it difficult to move or carry out certain tasks. Prosthetic limbs can help, but in 2004, no company was making them for animals. Campana decided to change that!

That was 17 years ago. Campana’s company, Bionic Pets, has now helped more than 30,000 animals—from dogs to kangaroos. In 2018, Campana built a leg brace for an African elephant named Jabu. No matter how big or small the creature, his design process is mostly the same.

Prosthetic Process

Many of Campana’s patients, like Jabu the African elephant, live in other countries. “Most of the time, I never see the animal,” he explains. But regardless of where the patient lives, Campana completes the same steps in order to create a custom prosthetic.

Before Campana starts designing, he studies his patient’s anatomy, which is the physical structure of its body. “For each species, you have to know what you’re working with structurally,” he says.

Many of Campana’s patients, like Jabu the elephant, live in other countries. “Most of the time, I never see the animal,” he explains. But he doesn’t actually need to. He follows the same steps to create a custom prosthetic for any animal, no matter where it lives.

Before Campana starts designing, he studies his patient’s anatomy, or body structure. “For each species, you have to know what you’re working with,” he says.

Courtesy of Derrick Campana/Bionic Pets

(Left): Campana traveled to Botswana to make sure Jabu the elephant’s brace fit correctly. Here he makes adjustments to get the perfect fit.; (Right): The final brace.

Next, Campana makes a fiberglass cast of the part of the animal’s body where the device will attach. If the animal lives in another country, like Jabu, Campana sends a casting kit to the animal’s caregivers. The kit contains materials and instructions for the caregivers to make their own fiberglass cast. A fiberglass cast is made of a light, durable plastic that can be shaped firmly around a limb or partial limb to capture an impression. After they make the cast, the caregivers mail it back to Campana.

When Campana is building a brace to support a limb that is damaged or injured but not missing, he may make a cast of an entire injured leg. If he’s building a prosthesis, he makes a cast of the stump that’s left of the limb. Once the hard cast is removed, Campana fills it with plaster to make a copy of the animal’s anatomy that he can work with.

Campana then uses soft plastic to shape the prosthesis or brace tightly around the plaster. He makes some prosthetic pieces with a 3-D printer—a machine that creates plastic objects using a layering method based on a design Campana inputs. Finally, Campana adds bolts, gears, and other pieces to allow the device to move like a real limb. He often adds a layer of textured material, called a tread, to the bottom of the device. That provides traction, which keeps the animals from sliding when they walk.

Next, Campana needs a model of the body part where the device will attach. If the animal lives in another country, like Jabu did, Campana doesn’t make the model himself. Instead he sends a casting kit to the animal’s caregivers. The kit contains materials and instructions. The caregivers shape fiberglass—a light, durable plastic—around the animal’s limb or partial limb. The fiberglass hardens into a cast in the shape of the body part. The caregivers then remove the cast and mail it back to Campana.

Sometimes Campana is building a brace to support a limb that is injured but not missing. In that case, he may make a cast of the entire injured leg. If he’s building a prosthesis, he makes a cast of the stump that’s left of the limb. Once the cast is removed, Campana pours plaster into it. The plaster hardens into a copy of the animal’s body part.

Campana then builds the prosthesis or brace around the plaster. He uses soft plastic to make the basic shape. He makes some prosthetic pieces with a 3-D printer, a machine that creates plastic objects layer by layer. Campana inputs a design into the 3-D printer to make exactly the shapes he wants. Finally, Campana adds bolts, gears, and other movable pieces. These help the device move and bend like a real limb. He often adds a layer of textured material to the bottom of the device. That provides grip to keep the animals from sliding when they walk.

Fresh Foot Forward

Fitting the patient with the new device is the last step in the process—and Campana’s favorite! Each fitting also serves as a test to make sure the brace or prosthesis fits properly and keeps the animal stable. “A lot of the time, we have to remake the prosthetic or brace,” explains Campana. “I never see many of my patients in real life and do not make their casts myself, which makes the process more challenging.”

Campana does not give up until his patient has a proper working prosthesis—no matter how far away the animal lives. “We are still learning, as I am one of the pioneers of this process,” he says.

Campana’s favorite step is the last one. That’s when his animal patient is fit with the new device! Campana or the animal’s caregivers test whether the brace or prosthesis fits properly. They also make sure it keeps the animal stable. If it doesn’t, Campana works on it more. “A lot of the time, we have to remake the prosthetic or brace,” explains Campana. “I never see many of my patients in real life and do not make their casts myself, which makes the process more challenging.”

But Campana does not give up until his patient has a working prosthesis—no matter how far away it lives. “We are still learning, as I am one of the pioneers of this process,” he says.

Courtesy of Derrick Campana/Bionic Pets

But Campana was able to fly all the way to the African country of Botswana to fit Jabu the elephant with its special brace. “Watching the animals take their first steps and seeing them happy and mobile again is the best part of the job,” he says.

Campana hopes to continue his work for years to come. 3-D printing and other new technologies are making the design process easier. “We can help even more animals at a lower cost,” says Campana.

Luckily for Campana, he got to fit Jabu the elephant with its special brace himself. He flew all the way to the African country of Botswana to do so. “Watching the animals take their first steps and seeing them happy and mobile again is the best part of the job,” he says.

Campana hopes to continue his work for years to come. 3-D printing and other new technologies are making the process easier. “We can help even more animals at a lower cost,” he says.

Use proportions to calculate sizes of different prostheses and parts Campana makes for his patients. Round answers to the nearest tenth when necessary. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Use proportions to calculate sizes of different prostheses and parts Campana makes for his patients. Round answers to the nearest tenth when necessary. Record your work and answers on our answer sheet.

Courtesy of Derrick Campana/Bionic Pets (All Images)

To make a leg brace for an Asian elephant, Campana uses his design for Jabu’s brace. Jabu is an 120-inch-tall African elephant. The Asian elephant is 108 inches tall. A piece on Jabu’s brace was 72 centimeters long. How long should the same piece on the Asian elephant’s brace be to stay in proportion?

To make a leg brace for an Asian elephant, Campana uses his design for Jabu’s brace. Jabu is an 120-inch-tall African elephant. The Asian elephant is 108 inches tall. A piece on Jabu’s brace was 72 centimeters long. How long should the same piece on the Asian elephant’s brace be to stay in proportion?

Two of Campana’s patients are goats that lost their left forelegs in the same accident. Goat A is 23 inches tall, and Goat B is 16 inches tall. Campana wants to make a prosthesis for Goat B first, and then scale it up for Goat A. Goat B’s prosthesis is 20 cm long. How long should Goat A’s prosthesis be?

Two of Campana’s patients are goats that lost their left forelegs in the same accident. Goat A is 23 inches tall, and Goat B is 16 inches tall. Campana wants to make a prosthesis for Goat B first, and then scale it up for Goat A. Goat B’s prosthesis is 20 cm long. How long should Goat A’s prosthesis be?

To make a new limb for a kangaroo, Campana studies a 15-centimeter-tall miniature model of a kangaroo skeleton and designs a prosthetic for it. The kangaroo is 250 cm tall. The prosthetic for the skeleton is 5 cm long. How long should the real kangaroo’s prosthetic be?

To make a new limb for a kangaroo, Campana studies a 15-centimeter-tall miniature model of a kangaroo skeleton and designs a prosthetic for it. The kangaroo is 250 cm tall. The prosthetic for the skeleton is 5 cm long. How long should the real kangaroo’s prosthetic be?

Campana scales up a brace for a patient that was fitted as a kitten but is now a full-grown cat that’s 9.4 inches tall. The old brace was 45 cm long. The new brace is 67.2 cm long. How tall was the kitten when it got its first brace?

Campana scales up a brace for a patient that was fitted as a kitten but is now a full-grown cat that’s 9.4 inches tall. The old brace was 45 cm long. The new brace is 67.2 cm long. How tall was the kitten when it got its first brace?

Campana uses his design for a tread from a miniature pony on a full-size horse. The pony is 86 cm tall. The horse is 163 cm tall. The pony’s tread is 5 cm long. How long will the horse’s tread be?

Campana uses his design for a tread from a miniature pony on a full-size horse. The pony is 86 cm tall. The horse is 163 cm tall. The pony’s tread is 5 cm long. How long will the horse’s tread be?

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