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Bionic Beasts

How this engineer helps animals walk again

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

A pony named Angel Marie received a brace and a prosthesis from Derrick Campana. The animal’s front legs were injured at birth. 

As you read, think about why planning and testing designs is an important part of engineering.

One day in 2004, a vet came into engineer Derrick Campana’s office with a request. The vet’s patient, a labrador named Charles, was missing one of its legs. Could Campana help the dog walk on four legs again? 

Campana had spent his career building prosthetic limbs for people. These artificial devices replace body parts that are missing. Animals that lose limbs or are born without them can have many physical problems. But in 2004, no company was making prosthetic limbs for animals. Campana decided to change that!

Fast-forward 16 years, and Campana’s company, Bionic Pets, has helped more than 30,000 animals, from dogs to kangaroos. In 2018, he even built a leg brace for an African elephant named Jabu. No matter the creature, Campana’s design process is mostly the same.

Engineer Derrick Campana was in his office one day in 2004. A vet came in needing help with a patient. The patient was named Charles. He was a Labrador retriever. He was missing one of his legs. Could Campana help the dog walk on four legs again? 


Campana built prosthetic limbs for people. These devices replace missing body parts. Animals can lose or be born without limbs too. That can cause them to have trouble getting around. But no one was making prosthetic limbs for animals in 2004. Campana decided to change that!

Fast-forward 16 years. Campana now has a company. It’s called Bionic Pets. It’s helped create prosthetic devices for more than 30,000 animals. They include everything from dogs to kangaroos. Campana even built a leg brace for an African elephant. His name is Jabu. That was in 2018. Campana follows a similar design process no matter the creature.

Step-by-Step

Before Campana starts designing, he studies his patient’s anatomy, the physical structure of its body. “For each species you have to know what you’re working with structurally,” he says.  

Next, Campana makes a fiberglass cast of the part of the animal’s body where the device will attach. When Campana is building a brace, he may make a cast of an entire injured leg. If he’s building a prosthesis, he makes a cast of the stump that’s left of the limb. Once the hard cast is removed, Campana fills it with plaster, a thick liquid mixture that hardens as it dries. 

Campana then uses soft plastic to shape the prosthesis or brace tightly around the plaster. He makes some pieces with a 3-D printer—a machine that creates objects by building them up in layers. Finally, Campana adds bolts, gears, and other pieces to allow the device to move like a real limb. He often adds a layer of textured material, called a tread, to the bottom of the device. That keeps the animals from sliding when they walk.

Campana doesn’t start designing right away. First, he studies each patient’s anatomy. That means the structure of a creature’s body. “For each species, you have to know what you’re working with structurally,” he says.  

Next, Campana makes a cast. It covers an animal’s hurt or missing body part. He may make a cast of an entire injured leg. Or he may make a cast of a limb’s remaining stump. The cast is removed once it hardens. Then Campana fills the cast with plaster. The thick mixture hardens as it dries into the shape of the original limb.

Campana shapes a brace or a prosthetic around the hardened plaster. He builds these devices out of soft plastic. He creates some pieces with a 3-D printer. This machine builds up layers of material. Eventually, they form a solid object. Finally, Campana adds bolts, gears, and other pieces. They allow the device to move like a real limb. He often adds a layer of textured material. It’s called tread. It goes on the bottom of the device. That keeps the animals from sliding when they walk.

Discovery Communications

Campana traveled to Botswana to fit Jabu the elephant with a leg brace.

Final Fitting

Fitting the patient with the new device is the last step in the process—and Campana’s favorite! Each fitting also serves as a test to make sure the brace or prosthesis fits properly and keeps the animal stable. 

Campana flew all the way to the African country of Botswana to fit Jabu the elephant with the special brace. “Watching the animals take their first steps and seeing them happy and mobile again is the best part of the job,” he says. 

Campana hopes to continue his work for years to come. 3-D printing and other new technology are making the design process easier. “We can help even more animals at a lower cost,” says Campana.

Fitting the patient with the new device is the last step. It’s Campana’s favorite step! That’s also when Campana tests the device out. Campana can make sure it fits properly. He can also check that it keeps the animal stable. 

Sometimes, Campana has to travel to do fittings. That was the case with the special brace for Jabu the elephant. Campana flew all the way to Botswana. It’s a country in Africa. “Watching the animals take their first steps and seeing them happy and mobile again is the best part of the job,” he says. 

Campana hopes to continue his work for years to come. And new technology like 3-D printing is making his job easier. “We can help even more animals at a lower cost,” says Campana.

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