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Penguin With Degenerative Foot Condition Gets Custom Shoes

Lucas the African penguin gets some help with his sore feetsies at the San Diego Zoo.

A penguin wears custom orthotic shoes as two San Diego Zoo staff members watch him.
Lucas is kitted out with some fresh kicks that could help him live a more normal penguin life.
San Diego Zoo

Lucas is a 4-year-old African penguin that lives at the San Diego Zoo in California. Unlike his Hollywood counterpart from Happy Feet, he doesn't dance, but he has had a big upgrade in his locomotion thanks to some new kicks. 

The zoo shared Lucas's story on Monday. The flightless bird has a permanent degenerative foot condition triggered by the impact of a spinal infection three years ago that weakened his leg muscles. The chronic condition is called bumblefoot. The zoo teamed up with Thera-Paw, a group that makes assistive products for special needs animals, to fit Lucas with orthopedic shoes.

The custom shoes are made from neoprene, rubber and Velcro and are meant to protect the lesions he has on his feet and stop him from developing new pressure sores. "I've known Lucas for a long time, so having the ability to provide him with a chance to live a normal life brings a smile to my face," said senior veterinarian Beth Bicknese.

African penguins are an endangered species due to human impacts, climate change, avian flu and loss of habitat. The small seabirds are adapted to handle both the warmth along the coast of South Africa and the cold waters off shore.

The boots have improved Lucas's posture, gait and balance.  "Seeing him move about now gives us hope that he may be OK going forward, and able to live a full life," senior wildlife care specialist Debbie Denton said.