HOUSTON – Hot and tired from a three-hour drive inside a trailer behind a pickup truck, the 600-pound English Charolais calf was content to lay on the grass behind a south Houston building while a team of technicians worked on its hind legs.
When the calf known as Hero heard its name called, the 15-month-old gingerly got up, unsteadily rocked a bit, then waddled away, tail wagging, eyes wide and tongue licking. It headed across a patch of concrete toward an appetizing snack of green shrubbery a few yards away.
Hero became what may be the nation's only double-amputee calf with prosthetics on Wednesday when fitted for a new pair of high-tech devices attached to its back legs.
"I'm so proud," Hero's caretaker, Kitty Martin, exclaimed. "Look at you!"
It's the latest step in a year-long effort that has taken Martin and the animal from Virginia, where she rescued it last year from an Augusta County farm where it succumbed to frostbite that claimed its hooves, to Texas. Animal surgeons at Texas A&M University treated Hero for several months and affixed the initial prosthetics that the calf now had outgrown.
"This is our first cow," Erin O'Brien, an orthotist and prosthetist for Hanger Inc., an Austin-based national firm that makes prosthetic limbs. She was among a team of about eight people working on the project for about two weeks.
"We did a lot of study of photos and video of cows just regular walking to see what it looks like and see if we can mimic that biomechanically," O'Brien said. "It's unusual, yes, but an opportunity."
Surgeons at Texas A&M accepted Martin's initial pleas for help, removing about two inches of bone to enable them to create a pad of tissue that would allow for prosthetics.
"Until I worked on him, I hadn't ever done it before. And I'd not heard of (prosthetics) before in a bovine," said Ashlee Watts, an equine orthopedic surgeon at the school.
Martin figures she has spent nearly $40,000 to save the calf.
"I don't know how to explain it," she said. "I'm an animal rescuer. And he had everything against him."
Hero's hooves are custom made of urethane and titanium, the connecting components are titanium and carbon fiber and the sockets that attach to his legs are carbon fiber and acrylic resin. Martin and O'Brien declined to discuss the cost, but estimated that similar devices for humans go for between $4,000 and $8,000 apiece.
Hero's sockets are painted with black and white cow spots. "Holstein legs," O'Brien laughed.
"We like to customize legs to the person's personality," she said.
Martin, 53, a former veterinary technician and retired truck driver originally from Dalhart, in the Texas Panhandle, is moving with her husband from Greenville, Virginia, to Cameron in Central Texas. She's hoping Hero, who could grow to 1,500 pounds, can be a therapy animal for wounded veterans and special needs children.
"It makes my day," Martin said. "He's got a very bright future right now."