Professor Noel Fitzpatrick is asked to help a very unusual visitor to the practice; a Humboldt Penguin chick with a very unhappy foot! Wall-e is from Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire, and an orphan as both his mother and father died. Longleat Penguin keepers Lucy and Georgia have reared him since he was born but noticed early on that his foot was deformed, and he has been referred to Fitzpatricks for surgery. In order to join the other penguins in the colony, this Christmas Wall-e must be fighting fit or he will be rejected by the group. But for Noel, this is new surgical territory, and he must do his homework to work out the best way to fix Wall-e before making a special trip to find out how he is faring…
Wall-e was born at Longleat Safari Park in Wiltshire. Keepers Lucy and Georgia look after him along with 12 other adult penguins on Penguin Island at the Safari Park. They ensure the penguins are fit and healthy, cleaning their enclosures and feeding them three times a day. The pair have been acting as mothers to this young chick for the last 9 weeks, as he sadly lost both of his parents. It’s difficult to know the sex of a penguin until they’re a little older, so initially he was simply called ‘Penguin Chick’.
Wall-e was born with a badly deformed right foot. While he could hobble around awkwardly on the ankle joint, they couldn’t leave him that way long term as it would continue to deteriorate. If Wall-e wasn’t able to walk and swim properly his long-term quality of life would not be good. The team at Longleat wanted to see what could be done to help the chick. Penguins can live 20 or even 30 years, and they wanted to try and make that possible for him. Noel agreed to assess the chick, to see if he could come up with a solution. If Noel was unable to do anything for Wall-e, it would not be possible to integrate him into the penguin group and, sadly, he might have to be put to sleep.
Noel called on a good friend and colleague of his, Avian Specialist Dr Neil Forbes, to help him come up with a plan to fix the Wall-e’s foot. To establish the extent of the deformity the chick had a CT scan. Birds respond differently to dogs and cats under anaesthesia, which itself presented a challenge for the team. Wall-e’s scans showed the severity of the problem, but would also help Noel find an appropriate solution.
Once Noel and Neil had devised a plan, the engineering team set about designing and manufacturing a special plate that was made using the CT scans. Prior to surgery, Noel was careful to warn Lucy and Georgia of the potential risks of operating on Wall-e. The plate would be difficult to place, and would need to circumnavigate the blood and nerve supply in Wall-e’s leg. Furthermore, a final outcome remained unknown because, to Noel and Neil’s knowledge, this surgery had never been done before. Lucy and Georgia knew this surgery was Wall-e’s only chance of a normal quality of life, so were happy to proceed. They waited while the chick had the surgery, as they would take him straight home as he would make a much better recovery in his own environment.
Noel and Neil went into surgery together. Neil’s knowledge was crucial in assisting Noel during the operation. First Noel cut the tibia bone at a specific point and angle that allowed the bottom of the leg to be rotated back into alinement. As suspected there were many blood vessels and nerves in the way that Noel had to carefully navigate around. Additionally, it was incredibly difficult for Noel to realign the muscles that had grown in the wrong position due to Wall-e’s deformity and stitch the skin back together because it was very tight in the new position with the plate underneath. A few hours later, Wall-e’s ankle was fused and he was taken to x-ray. The x-rays showed a good alignment and Noel was optimistic about his chances of recovery.
Three weeks after surgery Wall-e returned to Fitzpatricks for a check-up. Noel was very happy to see his progress, and pleased that the young chick now had a verified name and gender; a little boy called Wall-e.
A few weeks later, Noel made a special Christmas visit to Longleat to see how his young feathered patient was getting on, and was able to assist in Wall-e’s first introduction to the adults in the colony for the very first time. Noel even got the opportunity to see the young penguin swimming with his newly straightened foot.
Georgia and Lucy hope that by Christmas – Wall-e would be able to join his colony for good