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Arthritic Elephant Gets Pachyderm Pedicures And Giant Teva Boots

Asian elephant Shanthi plays in an enclosure at the Elephant Community Center during the unveiling of the major expansion of the elephant house at the Smithsonian's National Zoo in 2013.
Manuel Balce Ceneta
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Veterinarians at the Smithsonian's National Zoo have turned to an unconventional therapy for an arthritic 41-year-old Asian elephant — shoes.

Huge black boots designed by Teva for Shanthi's front feet, to be exact. They are "about a size 20, with an EEEEEEEEEEEE width," as The Washington Post reports, adding that "a single boot resembled a rubberized birdbath."

The boots help zookeepers keep badly needed medication "on the pads of her feet while preventing debris from entering the lesions for several hours at a time," Tony Barthel, the curator of the elephant exhibit, said in a statement. "They protect her healing feet in much the same way humans wear bandages, and they allow her to move freely throughout the exhibit."

Shanthi, a 41-year-old Asian elephant, was recently fitted with Washington's largest pair of Teva boots for her front feet to combat arthritis.
/ AP
The Florida Channel
Shanthi, a 41-year-old Asian elephant, was recently fitted with Washington's largest pair of Teva boots for her front feet to combat arthritis.

Shanthi was diagnosed with arthritis more than a decade ago. Barthel said that "over time, the disease has progressed in Shanthi. She's putting pressure now on new parts of her feet, and as a result, she's developing some cracks and lesions in the surrounding tissues."

As a result, zoo staff have been "administering daily pedicures, medicated foot baths, and cold laser therapy" for several months now, according to a statement from the zoo.

Chief veterinarian Don Neiffer said, however, that they wanted to see greater improvement in her condition. He said that along with the snazzy shoes, they turned to an unusual therapy to reduce joint inflammation:

"We decided to look for something more innovative, something new, something that had not been tried on an elephant. We pulled a large blood sample from her and submitted that to a laboratory to help create a protein normally made in the elephant's blood. This protein was then injected back into Shanthi's joint, where it actually helps block inflammation. Although this has been used on a number of horses with success, this is the first time this technology has ever been applied to an elephant."

Barthel told the Post that Shanthi took some time to get used to the shoes, comparing it to when you "put a sock on a dog and they don't know how to walk. She did a little bit of that. ... She was very careful about how she walked. That was an important part of the learning process."

Now, Neiffer said he believes they're seeing signs that Shanthi is feeling more comfortable. "As a zoo veterinarian, my patients don't often tell me whether they're feeling better or not," he said. "But when our elephant team reported that Shanthi, who has not laid down for several months, was in the yard, in the pool, lying on her side, and playing, I knew without a doubt that the efforts of all the teams here at the National Zoo had made a big and positive difference in her life."

Impressed by Shanthi's footwear? Wait till you hear her musical skills.

As we've reported, Shanthi loves playing the harmonica. This is how elephant keeper Debbie Flinkman described her musical style: "It's not usually a long ditty but it always ends in this really big sort of fanfare at the end ... this big blowout."

Watch her in action here:

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Merrit Kennedy is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She covers a broad range of issues, from the latest developments out of the Middle East to science research news.