At a glance, he may look like a typical alligator: stubby legs, scaly skin and sharp teeth.
But Mr. Stubbs, an 11-year-old American alligator at the Phoenix Herpetological Society, is debuting a new look when he goes for a swim: an artificial tail.
“In 2005 someone put him in a pen where there were larger alligators, and I’m sure they were hungry, and they ripped his tail off,” Russ Johnson, president of Phoenix Herpetological Society, told ABC News.
Lacking a tail, the alligator struggled to swim, but lacked the basic ability to survive against other reptiles.
“We put him in deep water and he would roll over and capsize like a boat,” said Johnson. “When competition for food came, all the other alligators would win. He’d be the last to the chow line.”
This past year, doctors at The Core Institute Center for Orthopedic Research and Education came up with a groundbreaking prosthetic tail to better the quality of life for Mr. Stubbs.
“We’ve never made a prosthetic for an animal before,” Marc Jacofsky, the executive vice president for research and development for The Core Institute, told ABC News. “Our motto is ‘Keep life in motion.’ It just feels really good to apply that to an animal that’s in need.”
The Core Institute partnered with Midwestern University, which does research in the anatomy of an alligator, to ensure the prosthetic would match the density of a real tail. Even though the research and development was carefully calculated, Jacofsky said the team has had to make several adjustments after monitoring Mr. Stubbs’s reaction to a prototype.
“One of the early strapping systems to secure the tail pressed on his legs and he wasn’t able to walk properly,” said Jacofsky. “There are always unforeseen challenges that come up. We anticipate this whenever we are breaking new ground, and the key is to engineer around them.”
The prosthetic tail, donated by The Core Institute, was developed over a period of three months. The project cost around $6,000. Johnson said believes with the new tail, the alligator could live up to 80 years. Without help, it could have been 20.
“Eventually what would’ve happened is when he gets bigger there would’ve been an abnormal pressure between the discs in his back. We would’ve seen spinal cord degradation, acute pain and he would’ve had to be put down,” Johnson told ABC News. “We’re just trying to make his quality of life what it should be.”
Johnson said Mr. Stubbs still has a long road ahead of him. While volunteers had to teach him how to swim without a tail, now they will have to re-teach him how to swim with a tail.
“I taught him to essentially to dog paddle like you teach your kid,” said Johnson. “You have to remember, his body has memory but he’s been swimming this way for eight years and you’re putting an attachment on there. It took about six months to swim dog-paddling, and I figured it will take three to six months to teach him to swim with a tail.”
The Phoenix Herpetological Society, a sanctuary in Arizona that works with more than 1,500 reptiles, was co-founded by Johnson in 2001. Under the sanctuary’s care the alligator got his unique name and learned how to swim without a tail.
“It wasn’t very difficult to name him after seeing him. I named him within the first two hours,” said Johnson.