‘A Chance at Life’ for Pearl the Duck: Yelm Area Resident Works to Get Prosthetic Legs for Fowl

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Pearl the Peking duck has several things going for her: 1.) she’s not for dinner; and 2.) she’s a duck, so she needn’t worry about COVID-19.

Otherwise, the poor girl’s a wobbling wreck.

But her future is looking significantly brighter after a veterinarian on Tuesday, June 30, amputated both of her webbed feet and a portion of each leg.

We’ll get back to that shortly, but first here’s a little history: The talkative 4-month-old quacker was born the first week of April with both legs splayed out to the side like malfunctioning landing gear. Pearl’s owner and rescuer Tamborine Borelli — who has lived in unincorporated Thurston County near Yelm since 2006 — taped the legs in place hoping they would develop naturally, but slipped tendons discovered too late to correct sealed Pearl’s fate.

As Pearl grew older and her weight and size increased, her joints began to twist, eventually causing one foot to atrophy like a crab claw and the other to turn inward. The combination of maladies left her unable to stand or maintain balance — causing her to use her beak like a walking cane to keep from falling and needing help to eat and drink.

Pearl is one of Borelli’s brood of beloved rescue animals, and the 49-year-old decided recently to take Pearl’s plight to the public, going so far as to set up a GoFundMe page for the cute, white, waterfowl. To date, she has raised $585 of the $1,000 she seeks.

Borelli wants to replace Pearl’s mangled legs with prosthetic legs and feet that will presumably allow her to function normally. Pearl’s new plastic-and-rubber appendages will be made using 3D printing technology. 

As of Tuesday, July 7, Pearl had completed about half her expected recuperation and was due to have her stitches removed next week. 

Dr. Bridget Ferguson at Pine Tree Veterinary Hospital in Maple Valley, who performed the surgery, noted in an email last week that “Pearl did great after her double foot amputation. She is resting peacefully and is on pain medications. She will need frequent bandage changes, medications and lots of TLC.”

Ferguson had previously discussed the challenges of Pearl’s prosthetic journey.

The most difficult aspect of the process, she wrote, is “making sure the end of the limbs heal 100 percent and has some toughening to allow for the prosthetic to be on for extended times.”

And though just about anything will improve Pearl’s current painful existence, Ferguson cautions against sky-high expectations.

“Sadly, no prosthesis will likely function exactly as the natural one,” she wrote. “The complexity of simply walking and all the movements that go into that currently cannot be replicated in an artificial limb. What we are looking for is the ability to get around better and have a better quality of life than we currently have.”

Borelli, who as an independent candidate lost in the 2018 primary election for the U.S. House 10th Congressional District, has been heavily involved in animal rescue organizations for about 10 years and increased her rescue activities after recently losing her job as a spa director due to the coronavirus recession. In the process, she adopted Pearl and Lucy from someone who had purchased the ducks from a local feed store then decided that caring for them was just too much.

So in stepped Borelli like a sort of guardian in waiting.

“When I was 5 years old, I said to myself, ‘I’m going to be rich, and I’m going to have a mansion and every room will be for a stray dog or cat.’”

Or duck.

Turns out she never obtained the mansion, but her rural Thurston County three-bedroom home on a lush 5 acres has just about the same number of animals she originally envisioned: nine dogs, four cats, 20 chickens and six ducks — all rescues.

“The animals somehow seem to find you one way or the other,” Borelli said, alluding to the variety of animal rescue organizations to which she belongs. “It’s a very intricate network of people who really care about animals and are committed to finding them their ‘forever homes.’” 

Forever for Pearl and Lucy should be from 9 to 12 years if they live out their whole lives. And for Pearl, “that’s an awful long time to suffer if crippled.”

So Borelli decided to take the matter into her own hands — but failed.

“After trying to fix her legs and being frustrated about not being successful, I couldn’t bear the thought of her going through life in pain and struggling to do the simplest of natural duck behavior,” she said. “So I asked, ‘How could this be rectified?’” 

That prompted her to begin digging, and sure enough she discovered that in 2013 another duck named Dudley had successfully undergone surgery and that the design for his prosthetic feet still existed. The trick, then, would have been to apply Dudley’s existing design to the size and shape of Pearl’s feet and legs.

But, alas — as of Monday, July 6 — it appeared that Dudley’s prosthetics would not fit Pearl because her joints were too deformed, Borelli said. So now Borelli must find a new engineer to make Pearl’s prosthetics based on measurements taken after Pearl’s stitches come out.

Borelli isn’t wasting time: She has already reached out to the University of Washington engineering program to see if it would like to be part of “Pearl’s team.”

“I am interested in creating legs for Pearl that look and feel more like a real duck’s rather than mechanical and robotic,” Borelli said. “With today’s technology, I think we can achieve that.”

And that’s part of the challenge facing Chris McAloney, engineering operations manager at Proto3000, an engineering company in Vaughan, Ontario, Canada. Proto3000 specializes in 3D printing, 3D laser scanning, 3D CAD design and lots of other complicated engineering stuff —  and it makes rubber-and-plastic duck feet, as it did for Dudley.

McAloney noted that the prosthetics’ engineering and fitting process is typically trial and error.

“As with any prosthetic, either for an animal or human, there will certainly be an adjustment period as she gets used to this new sensation,” he explained. “Ducks we have seen in the past seem to go right into normal movements, and adapt well.”

Though the situation continues to evolve, McAloney envisions Pearl’s new feet to be black — which will contrast nicely against her white feathers — and probably weigh from 100 to 200 grams. And based on Pearl’s measurements obtained following her surgery, the feet should be no more than 1-to-2 inches high, McAloney said.

Borelli had expected the whole process — surgery, engineering and manufacture — to cost from $2,000 to $5,000, but Ferguson performed the surgery for free and charged Borelli just for Pearl’s initial exam and subsequent medications. So the total price is still up in the air — and could rise if new prosthetic blueprints are required.    

Meanwhile, Borelli’s aware that her GoFundMe contributions will suffer in a pandemic that’s caused extensive economic turmoil.

“Even $5 from a lot of people would really help, but I know the position people are in today, because I, myself, am unemployed because of COVID-19,” she said.

That said, 23 people as of Tuesday, July 7, had contributed to Pearl’s cause — seven of them for $50 apiece.

But regardless of her fundraising haul and other potential compromises on her total bill, Borelli expects to pay some of Pearl’s cost out of pocket, though the attitudes of Pearl’s caregivers have thrilled her.

“The cool thing is that these professionals seem very willing to help,” she said. “Their inspiration seems to be to help Pearl.”

Borelli, of course, thoroughly understands that concept. Before Pearl’s surgery, she’d heard her feathered pet’s plaintive cries throughout the day as Pearl tried in vain to find comfortable resting positions.

“Nobody can really know the degree of stress Pearl had — as it was stressful for me, too — because some people who knew about the situation would just say ‘cull her,’” she said. “But Pearl just deserves a chance at life.”

To access Pearl’s GoFundMe page, visit 

https://www.gofundme.com/f/help-pearl-the-duck-get-new-legs?utm_medium=copy_link&utm_source=customer&utm_campaign=p_na+share-sheet&rcid=a182baeb004444f5bb2a680ff94306a6 

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