Most people would not go out of their way to make a 7-foot-long alligator a more efficient swimmer. But a team of researchers in Arizona are doing just that, having attached a prosthetic tail to the back of an alligator to help the creature live a more normal life.
“The fact he doesn’t try to bite [the tail] is a good sign,” Russ Johnson, president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, told the Arizona Republic. “Learning how to use it is going to take a lot of training.”
Johnson said that Mr. Stubbs, 11 years old, lost his tail to the jaws of another alligator about eight years ago. He was found in the back of a truck, along with about 30 other illegally held alligators, near Scottsdale, Ariz.
Without a tail, Mr. Stubbs has gone through most of his life struggling to swim. The physical limitation has prevented him from being released back into the wild, along with the other rescued alligators.
Over the years, Johnson and others have taught Mr. Stubbs to swim using his front legs, but they hoped for a more effective solution.
Now, he's treading water with a 3-foot prosthetic tail attached to the stub where his real tail once was. The tail was funded by about $6,000 in donations.
“I looked and saw there was enough there that we could probably do something that wouldn’t involve surgery,” Marc Jacofsky, executive vice president of research and development at the the Center for Orthopedic Research and Education (CORE), told the Republic. “I also liked the idea because it would improve his life.”
Interestingly, the inspiration for Mr. Stubbs’ new tail came from a similar project designed to help a creature with a very different reputation in the documentary “Dolphin Tale.”
But the prosthetic has reportedly come with its share of complications. For example, the team had to attach a bright orange water wing to help Mr. Stubbs stay afloat while he adjusts to the new tail. And the tail itself was taking on water, at one point causing Mr. Stubbs to sink to the bottom of the swimming pool where researchers were monitoring his progress.
Still, Johnson said Mr. Stubbs should eventually fully adapt to his new tail, giving him a much-improved quality of life over his expected 70-year lifespan.
“He is going to have a long and happy life here,” Johnson told the Republic. “Right now, I want to get him to the point where he doesn’t need that floaty anymore. That way the other gators will stop making fun of him.”
- Russ Johnson