As humans, when we lose a limb, we receive prosthetic titanium limbs as a result of illness or injury. Thanks to the University of Pretoria (UP) team led by Professor Gerhard Steenkamp, a veterinary specialist in dentistry and maxillofacial surgery at the Faculty of Veterinary Science, a macaw has been given a new lease of life with a 3D-printed beak.
Max is a blue and gold macaw from a bird sanctuary in the Eastern Cape. He received a fully functional 3D-printed prosthetic beak after he got into two fights with other macaws, resulting in this beak being damaged and then ripped off.
Max’s surgery was conducted recently at the Robberg Veterinary Clinic in Plettenberg Bay, with local vet Dr Brendan Tindall administering the anaesthesia, Prof Steenkamp attaching the prosthesis, and former UP professor and specialist prosthodontist Prof Cules van Heerden assisting.
“Max is doing well, and no complications have been seen with the beak so far,” said Prof Steenkamp, who was recently part of a team that performed the first CT scan on a live adult rhino at the Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital (OVAH). The macaw’s owner, Trevor Glover, based in the Western Cape, said that within a day of surgery, Max was eating solid pieces of food. “This is quite a change from eating only soft food for years,” he added.
This surgery is the first of its kind to be performed in South Africa. It required collaboration with Bloemfontein’s Central University of Technology and industry partners. The work took the team nearly two years due to the lockdown caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. The result is that Max is now eating normally with the 3D-printed titanium beak and has returned home.
“Max was brought to the sanctuary in 2017 after his owner moved overseas,” Glover said. “He was aggressive towards the rescued birds and during hormone season at the end of 2017, he attacked a macaw that retaliated by biting his top beak and cracking the left side from top to bottom.”
Max, who is estimated to be close to 20 years old, was then placed in a transition aviary, along with another macaw who had an injured beak. “But in the third week together, they got into a fight, with Max’s weakened beak being ripped off completely,” Glover explained.
The broken-off beak was taken to Dr Tindall for treatment and evaluation.
“Brendan kept him, and over the following few days, was able to get Max to take in soft food. On Max’s return to the sanctuary, I began to feed him a hot, soft food mix of about 10 nutritious foods twice a day. His weight was monitored daily. He was hand-fed, but soon started lapping food up with his tongue. From then on, in addition to the soft food mix, he got a range of soft fruit along with almond sprinkles. As long as he could get to the food with his tongue, he could eat on his own,” Glover adds.
Max’s beak continued to grow straight out, with nothing to wear it down. “The bottom of the beak grew longer than Max’s tongue; this prevented him from reaching his food,” Glover explained. “Brendan then started a routine cut-back of the bottom beak.”
The job of creating the screws to attach the 3D beak was contracted to Saspine, a Pretoria-based company that works in the human orthopaedic environment, which sponsored the specialised locking screws specifically developed for Max new 3D-printed beak. What made the beak different was that “we developed three anchors that passed through the printed beak, all the way across the beak and locked into the prosthesis on the far end. This ‘locking mechanism’ has never been described in birds,” said Prof Steenkamp.
He explained that moulds of the stump had to be made several times to check if the beak stump had changed. The surgery lasted just over an hour. “It is amazing what can be achieved with 3D printing,” he said. “I am happy to have been part of the team that has given Max a second chance in life and would like to thank our industry partners.”
Max has returned home to a special aviary that Glover has built for him. “I am very grateful for the help, kindness, advice and dedication given by the team led by Prof Steenkamp,” Glover said. “Max has been given a new lease of life and has gone back to relatively normal behaviour – eating, flying and climbing as he did before the injury. My heartfelt thanks to all.”
Picture: University of Pretoria