Mr. Stubbs was not like the other alligators.
An Arizona Highway Patrolman found him in a tractor trailer along Interstate 10, one of several Phoenix Herpetological Society, was missing a large portion of his tail.being transported without a permit. The alligator, who would be dubbed Mr. Stubbs upon taking up residence at the
While no one is completely sure how Mr. Stubbs lost his tail, the theory is that another, bigger alligator bit it off when he was a baby. A missing tail is a problem for an alligator. The appendage functions something like an extra limb, helping the animal propel itself through the water and keep its balance on dry land when it walks. The tail accounts for about 30% of an alligator’s total body mass.
So, the Herpetological Society reached out to the Core Institute, which specializes in orthopedic care, and its sister organization, a nonprofit called the More Foundation, with the wish for a new tail for Mr. Stubbs.
“Certainly, this was the first time we’d had a request for an alligator,” says Marc Jacofsky, executive director of research and education at the More Foundation. “The motto of our organization is ‘keep life in motion,’ and I didn’t see anywhere where it says human life, only.”
Jacofsky, the More Foundation and Midwestern University researchers approached the task traditionally — at first. They took a mold of Mr. Stubb’s backside, and then took a mold of a tail from the cadaver of a similarly sized alligator, and blended the two. Using a tough rubber silicone material called Dragon Skin, they made a flexible tail they could attach to Mr. Stubbs’ residual tail.
Everyone might have gone back to their swamp at that point, but Mr. Stubbs, like most living creatures, grew and changed over time — meaning he needed a new tail just about every year. That involved dipping a 90-pound alligator’s butt in rubber, annually, and scouting for yet another cadaver. That’s when the foundation turned to 3D scanning and printing technology.
Using computer software, they scanned the alligator and scaled up his tail, digitally. It took about 150 hours to print, and about $1,000 worth of materials to create, but the result was a new, 35-pound Dragon Skin tail for Mr. Stubbs.
While Mr. Stubbs is far from the first critter to end up with a human-made appendage, there’s no hard data available about how many animals out there use prosthetics. One higher-profile prosthetics makers in the field, Derrick Campana, says on his site that he’s “treated 20,000 furry patients with mobility devices” since 2004 alone.
At North Carolina State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, doctors Simon Roe and Natasha Olby tell me over Zoom calls about their work on everything from prosthetic joints (more Roe’s speciality) to the use of carts for paraplegic or neurologically challenged animals (Olby’s area).
Animals with mobility issues have a spectrum of available options, Roe says. There are the prosthetics that slip over residual limbs. Less commonly, some doctors implant prosthetics directly into bones and through the skin. Or, as was the case for Olby’s late dachshund Mickey, a cart for his back legs helped him zip around and even bully his other dog siblings by blocking doorways.