These Boots Were Made for Waddling

Seemingly outfitted in sleek tuxedos—from their webbed toes to the tip of their flippers—African penguins are always dressed for the occasion. For Lucas, a four-year old penguin at the San Diego Zoo, snazzy new shoes are taking his dapper look to the next level. However, the rubber and neoprene booties aren’t “statement” shoes. In fact, they’re quite the opposite. Lucas’s new orthopedic footwear could be the key to helping him fit in with his colony.

Lucas has a chronic, degenerative foot condition that birds are prone to developing.  In this case, Lucas lost the ability to stand properly because of a problem with his spine when he was younger. He rests on an unprotected part of his leg, making him prone to developing pressure sores called bumblefoot. This condition can pose a serious health risk if left untreated. In Lucas’s case, tenderness and sores on his left foot led to a limp that was preventing him from keeping up with the rest of the colony. His bumblefoot is believed to be a permanent condition—but through some creative and innovative wildlife care, Lucas has a new opportunity to thrive.

Because of a problem with his spine when he was younger, Lucas lost the ability to stand properly. He rests on an unprotected part of his leg, making him prone to developing pressure sores called bumblefoot.

With the help of Thera-Paw, a national organization that designs and manufactures rehabilitative and assistive products for animals with special needs, our wildlife health and wildlife care specialist teams were able to create, and fit Lucas with, a pair of custom orthopedic shoes.

To do this, our teams created a special sandy area for him to walk through, so they could carefully examine and make molds of the footprints he left behind. The molds show where Lucas bears weight and distributes pressure in his feet, highlighting the areas that need padding and support. With these molds, Thera-Paw was able to design custom shoes that protect and cushion Lucas’s feet, and improve his overall mobility.

Using Lucas’s footprints in the sand, our teams created plaster molds showing the areas of his feet that need padding and support. Thera-Paw used these molds to design custom orthopedic shoes.

After fitting Lucas with his new boots, it was clear the shoes were a step in the right direction. His gait and posture improved, allowing him to navigate his rocky habitat with greater ease. Wildlife care specialists were pleasantly surprised at the immediate change, which brings renewed hope that Lucas will be able to continue living a full and healthy life.

With his new shoes, Lucas’s waddle showed immediate improvement.

Beyond making him more comfortable day to day, efforts to support Lucas have additional beneficial ripple effects. “The boots help Lucas to fully participate in the colony and showcase behaviors that are more typical for a penguin—such as climbing the rocks, swimming, nesting, and finding a suitable mate,” shared Dr. Beth Bicknese, senior veterinarian at the San Diego Zoo. And if Lucas can find a suitable mate, he can help secure the future for his species.

African penguin populations have plummeted over the last few decades—and today, these birds are endangered. They face a range of threats, including lack of readily available food due to overfishing, habitat loss, and climate change, as well as oil and marine pollution. As the decline continues, each individual bird is especially significant—and the penguins at the San Diego Zoo can make a difference for their entire species.

Found in the warm climate of South Africa’s rocky beaches, these endangered penguins face many threats. Together, we’re working to save them—and every individual is important!

The ex-situ colonies at the San Diego Zoo and elsewhere are important to African penguin conservation. As the group grows, so does its strength as an “assurance population”—a population outside of the native range that safeguards the species, protects genetic diversity, and increases global numbers. On top of that, the penguins here are vital ambassadors. Every day, thousands of wildlife allies visit Lucas and the colony, making lifelong connections with these dapper and charismatic birds that inspire change and fuel conservation efforts for this iconic species. And as an umbrella species, protections and conservation efforts for African penguins have a positive impact on the large, interconnected web of marine species that share their habitat.

We are committed to ensuring that the wildlife we care for in San Diego—and across our Conservation Hubs worldwide—are healthy and thriving. Lucas’s boots are one example of the innovation, dedication, and expertise of San Diego Zoo Wildlife Alliance teams that are applied daily. As Lucas’s condition continues to evolve throughout the course of his life, so will the care and support that is provided for him. These hopeful steps forward are just the beginning—and with wildlife allies like you by our side, we’re waddling toward a brighter future for all African penguins.

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