3D Printing Is For The …BIRDS!

For 4 years, my inbox has been full of requests from families and recipients who are seeking assistance in creating low cost, 3D printable upper limb assistive devices. The global e-NABLE Community has delivered approximately 3000 hands, arms and assistive tools to those in need in over 90 countries worldwide and one of my favorite parts of the work I do for our volunteers… is getting to tell the stories of the lives that are changed by the generosity of my e-NABLE Family!

This time, the lives that have been changed are not young children born missing fingers or adults who have lost their hands in accidents or war. This time, I get to share two stories about two lives that were changed because of the kindness of our amazing e-NABLE Germany Volunteer, Lars Thalmann, who got an email from me back in December of 2016 asking if he would be interested in taking on a new challenge…making a prosthetic leg for a bird of prey, named Söckchen, who was in need of a “helping…foot.”

Söckchen, which means “Little Sock” in German, is a 3 year old secretary bird who lives at the Weltvogelpark Walsrode sanctuary in Walsrode, a town in northwestern Germany. Usually found in South Africa, the secretary bird looks a bit like a crane and unlike other raptors, has long legs and only flies when it has to.

In mid December last year, I received the email from German Alonso, Söckchen’s keeper, asking if I had any ideas of how to help this beautiful creature. Söckchen had broken the left leg and because the nerves were so badly damaged,  the leg had to be amputated and they were afraid Söckchen would never be able to walk again.

Within a matter of hours, I was able to connect German Alonso to Lars who was eager to take on a brand new challenge and in early January, traveled to Walsrode to get measurements of Söckchen’s legs in person.

Lars shares, “When I arrived, they treated me to a nice breakfast and I shared with them about e-NABLE. Once breakfast was finished, they showed me a healthy african secretary bird so I could see how they walk and behave and then they took me to find Söckchen’s living quarters which had a nice grassy area for the bird to walk around.”

He goes on to say, “They told me to peak inside and at first Söckchen looked at me totally confused, but not very scared…more like interested…like she wanted to say “Hey..who are YOU?!” I asked them to hold Söckchen upright so that I could make some drawings of the good leg as well as the injured one and we were surprised at how fast that went.”

Lars explains, “Söckchen is a very nice bird, very kind and like a pet to the keepers. When they discovered that this bird was injured they were heartbroken and when I told them that I thought I could help, the trainers cried again, but this time because of joy! German Alonso told me that in his over 15 years of animal keeping, he never imagined that a bird the size of Söckchen could get a prosthesis.”

“For the first design, they requested a foot because they thought it would be a good idea. Back home, I did the design work on my PC but the foot was a little challenging because it had to be moveable around the ankle to giver Söckchen the freedom to walk more naturally.” Lars goes on to share, “This function is very important to the secretary bird because they kill their prey (poisonous snakes) by stepping on them. The bird is about 5kg but can stamp with their feet with a force of 25kg, nearly 5x more than they weigh.”

Lars had to reenforce his design of the foot with metal tubes and roughly 1 month after the first visit, drove back to try the prototype on Söckchen’s leg.  At first it didn’t fit correctly but after a few adjustments, it fit perfectly. Once the prosthesis was fit to Söckchen, the bird stood and slowly but surely, began walking around.

“When I got home, they gave me some real feedback. I needed to make a 2nd design for them because the first one was too heavy. I made Söckchen what I call the “Sports version” without the additional foot and then sent it to them.” Lars explains, “The trainers were excited and shared that Söckchen seemed much more enthusiastic and wanted to keep going faster and faster but they had to keep slowing the bird down!”

In the summer, Lars went back to visit and see Söckchen. At the end of the day, they brought Söckchen out to walk around in the open field and after a nice walk and a belly full of food, Söckchen walked over to Lars. He shares, “Söckchen walked up to me and was standing next to me, looking at me and making friendly sounds. Almost like she remembers me. Such a very cute little one!”

After the story hit the news about Söckchen’s new 3D printed leg, there was a bit of controversy from those that believe that prosthetics for animals are not healthy or good for them. Michael, one of Söckchen’s trainers explains, “They should have seen Söckchen before this prosthesis. She was so down and depressed in her cage, she barely ate any food. But now, with this device, she eats a lot, runs around and makes happy noises and yes, she is pushing it to the limit and the trainers have to slow her down but it is so nice to see this positive effect on her!”

When Söckchen’s story went public, it wasn’t long before Lars was contacted again about helping another bird who also needed a prosthetic leg. This time, it was a stork named “Fairy.”

“Not long after I helped Söckchen, I was contacted by Karl, the owner of “Bird Station” in Rüdershausen. He has been retired for about 15 years but keeps the NABU Bird Station open in case there is need for rescuing injured wild birds. A hiker came upon Fairy in a field and discovered she had a broken leg,” explains Lars. “Her story was already very public in their area because one of the largest prosthetics manufacturers worldwide had already made two prosthetics for the bird but she was not able to use them well.” 

Karl had seen Söckchen’s story and was convinced that Lars was the man for the job and the only one that could help!

Lars shares, “The main intention for the prosthesis was to get Fairy walking again so that a German park would take her and she wouldn’t have to spend the rest of her life in the very small “Bird Station” with Karl. With the prosthesis that was created for her by the larger manufacturer, no parks in Germany wanted to take Fairy because it was way too complex and did not work very well.”

“I told Karl that I would need to meet Fairy and work with their medical staff to tell me the important information about the birds anatomy. You could tell right away she was a wild animal and very scared and shy. Karl, the doctor and I took measurements but with this bird, there was another problem. Fairy did not have much of her lower leg left to be able to secure the device properly so I had to create an angle with an extra joint,” said Lars.

Once the design was finished, Lars returned to deliver the prosthetic for Fairy, but this time, he stood back and let the doctor and Karl fit it to her. “At first, she seemed very confused,” Lars explains, “She didn’t understand, but then she started walking away and even flew a short 5 meter distance,” said Lars.

He goes on to say, “The doctor was shocked and excited and told me “oh my goodness! With the old prosthetic, she did not walk. She would only hold still or just sit – but never walked or flew away…did you see how she landed? Almost like normal!”

A larger park in Osnabrück became interested in having Fairy come to live with them where she would have more room to move around and enjoy her life. They were impressed with how well the lower cost 3D printed prosthetic was working for her and how easy it was to put on and take off of the bird.

Just a few days before Fairy was to head off to her new home at the larger park, Lars got the unfortunate news that she had passed away.

He shares, “Karl sent me a wonderful email, thanking me for making the life of Fairy so joyful again.”

Thank you Lars, for working so hard to help give joy back to these two beautiful creatures and for taking the the time to make a difference! You are a true hero!

As the e-NABLE Community continues to expand not only across the globe, but also into new areas of open-source assistive design work, I hope to be able to share more and more stories of acts of kindness from our volunteers, schools and chapters who are using their ideas and imaginations to change the world for the better!

If you are a school that has brought e-NABLE into your classrooms and are waiting for recipients for 3D printed hands, please consider reaching out to your local Veterinarians, zoos and animal shelters who may have critters with a special need that your students might work with for a STEM based learning project! Not only will they get to learn more about 3D design work but they will also help change a life!

If you enjoyed this blog post and would like to see more stories, resources, tutorials and design challenges shared on this website, please consider making a donation to help support enablingthefuture.org. Your donation allows us to keep growing this community and expanding it’s reach!

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